A video made the rounds late last year that showed a truck running through a parking lot barrier and smashing into cars waiting at a traffic light. It just so happened that the alleged drunk driver was an emergency physician who had just finished working a morning shift. She was allegedly under the influence of alcohol. It was one single isolated incident. But it played over and over on television, making emergency physicians and emergency department staffs across the nation cringe.
Explore This IssueACEP News: Vol 32 – No 06 – June 2013
It also turned the spotlight back to a study published in 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine that said emergency physicians suffer from burnout and stress, much more so than their counterparts in other specialties. The research was conducted on behalf of the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association, and 7,288 responded by filling out a questionnaire. The results found that nearly 60 percent of emergency physicians suffered from some kind of burnout. Emergency physicians were at the top of the list, along with doctors in internal medicine and family medicine.
The study didn’t say that burnout leads to drinking and drugs and driving your car off the road.
“They aren’t necessarily related at all, though obviously there is some overlap,’’ said Dr. Louise Andrew, the chair of ACEP’s Well-Being Committee.
ACEP offers help and advice for stress relief and has kept in place a policy on physician impairment for more than 20 years. It is currently undergoing a regular revision by the Well-Being Committee. ACEP has had a Well-Being Committee for about 30 years, covering all aspects of physician health and well-being. These programs offer resources to members experiencing burnout, including peer to peer counseling. But experts say physicians are often slow to acknowledge career-threatening problems, even to themselves.
Dr. Jay Kaplan, a member of ACEP’s Board of Directors and an expert on physician wellness, said it’s no surprise that some physicians battle burnout. He said even more must be done to help.
“Emergency physicians are scheduled around the clock in workplaces more prone to violence than other doctors’ offices,” he said. “They face a continuous onslaught of new patients, who often must be treated simultaneously instead of one at a time. On any given day, physicians face a rotating cast of medical colleagues. The patients themselves can be difficult and in worse shape medically than those who seek routine care.”
Stress can be the price you pay for serving as the nation’s safety net, he said. “But doctors are not terribly good at recognizing when they’re burned out,’’ he said. “And medical colleagues are often reluctant to say, ‘You seem to be having difficulty here. What can I do to support you?’ ’’