The DO | Special Coverage | OMED 2012

‘Compassion fatigue’: For physicians, caring too much can lead to burnout

Nearly half of physicians report suffering from at least one symptom of burnout, according to a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Dr. Brooks

Michael F. Brooks, DO, discusses the causes and prevention of “compassion fatigue” during OMED 2012. (Photo by Patrick Sinco)

In an OMED presentation Sunday put on by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine, Michael F. Brooks, DO, discussed the causes and prevention of “compassion fatigue,” which he defined as a physician’s preoccupation with the trauma of his or her patients. Because exhaustion can lead to substance abuse and other self-harming behaviors—especially in physicians predisposed to addiction—it’s important for physicians to be aware of signs of burnout both in themselves and in their fellow physicians, said Dr. Brooks, who is the chief of psychiatry at Brighton (Mich.) Hospital.

Physicians, especially young ones, sometimes have dangerous misconceptions about their work that can lead to burnout. For example, Dr Brooks said physicians shouldn’t expect that patients will always appreciate their efforts. Nor should physicians take for granted that their spouses, family and friends will understand and support their spending so much time on work.

“Going the extra 10,000 miles in your office practice or with your very ill patient is going to eat away at the foundation of your life,” he said. “And you need to keep that in mind when you make decisions about the way you practice.”

Physicians can help physicians

It’s critical that physicians watch for signs of burnout in themselves and others, Dr. Brooks said, and to speak up when noticing self-destructive behavior in a colleague.

“It is our duty as physicians to intervene in situations like that,” Dr. Brooks said.

In addition to watching for signs of compassion fatigue, physicians should be aware of how to prevent it in the first place. To begin, don’t take responsibility for everything, Dr. Brooks said.

“You’re not God. You all recognize that, don’t you?” he said. “This is not a surgical group, is it?” he added, to laughter in the audience.

But most of all, physicians need to remember that their patients’ suffering is not their suffering, Dr. Brooks said.

“That’s the reality. Don’t make it your pain because that will get in the way of your taking care of them,” he said.

After the session, Adam P. Guss, OMS II, said he wasn’t surprised to learn about the prevalence of compassion fatigue among physicians. He said he could already see signs of it in medical school.

“As medical students, we’re trained from the beginning to burn ourselves out, and then we’re surprised when we do get burned out,” said Guss, who attends the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine of New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

Guss liked Dr. Brooks’ suggestions on preventing compassion fatigue, and he said his main takeaway from the presentation was that physician health should be monitored.

“Physicians need to have their own physician,” he said.