Physician Burnout: A Personal Story

Editor’s Note: Dr. Thomas Murphy December 03, 2015
The following commentary is authored by Thomas Murphy, a rheumatologist living in Boise, Idaho, and practicing medicine in nearby Emmett, Idaho. He recently published a book about physician burnout: Physician Burnout: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery. He also has a website dedicated to the issue of physician burnout. The following article is the first in a series about physician burnout in which Dr Murphy and Medscape seek to bring knowledge and awareness to this topic.

Time is baffling. It seemed like just yesterday that I sat in a posh auditorium in Chicago, an enthusiastic young adult on my first day of medical school orientation at Northwestern University in 1995. Eighteen years later, I was a 43-year-old burned out physician, practicing in Boise, Idaho, searching Google for the most effective way to end my life. During my time of maximum burnout, I was the type of physician that I never wanted to be: impatient, sarcastic, and occasionally dismissive of my patients. I made caustic jokes about some patients in the lunchroom. In short: I was not happy.

As I learned about the problem of physician burnout, I came to recognize that I was not alone. While researching the subject of burnout for a book I recently wrote on the subject, I learned that burnout is not some psychological abnormality too embarrassing to speak about in public. Quite the contrary. For example, a 2011 survey of over 2000 US physicians found that 87% reported feeling moderately to severely stressed or burned out on an average day.[1] On the extreme spectrum, female physicians have a successful suicide rate of 250%-400% higher than their counterparts in the general population.[2] Something very alarming is going on in the American healthcare system nowadays. Doctors aren’t happy, and neither are patients. The proverbial admonition, “Happy doctors make for happy patients” comes to mind with the caveat that the reverse is also true.

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