The stress of working with terminal patients began to take a significant toll on Kevin Hubbard, DO, shortly after he began practicing oncology, hospice and palliative care 25 years ago.
“The emotional side of treating patients can be more exhausting than the physical fatigue of the job. I didn’t have the coping skills I needed at first, so I started self-medicating with food,” says Dr. Hubbard, whose weight rose to 350 pounds.
In time, Dr. Hubbard found more positive outlets for handling stress, such as playing drums, studying martial arts and spending time with his family. Adopting a healthier lifestyle also helped him lose 90 pounds.
Coping with what they see on the job can be challenging for physicians practicing in any specialty. Many DOs have found that applying osteopathic principles to their own lives can help prevent burnout and decrease stress.
Talk to your physician
If a patient struggles with being overweight, a physician will likely suggest strategies to help prevent diabetes. Yet physicians often don’t take the same approach with their own health.
“We need to address burnout on a preventive level by talking about our well-being and partnering with each other to address signs of burnout,” says Miko Rose, DO, founder of the Joy Initiative—a 10-week mindfulness training class at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing.
It might be time to talk to your physician about burnout if you experience:
- Lack of compassion.
- Signs of fatigue.
- Difficulty concentrating.
Take care of the whole person
Physicians often feel like they need to be “superheroes,” which does not leave much room for them to talk about moments of feeling weak or vulnerable, says Dr. Rose, a board-certified psychiatrist.
“We have days when there isn’t time to take care of our basic needs. We need to provide more opportunities for physicians to start healing and taking care of themselves,” she adds.
One way physicians can do that is by helping each other learn how to cope effectively with stressors on the job.
“For as many times as I have told students or residents they did a good job, I have hugged them in private as they grieved and cried,” Dr. Hubbard says. “You don’t have to suffer in silence. We need to be supportive of each other not just in terms of taking care of our patients but also taking care of ourselves.”
Consider the person within the physician
Continually striving to balance empathy and compassion for patients can place physicians at risk for burnout, Dr. Rose says.
“We need to listen to our patients in a way that allows us to be there for them but not take their problems home with us,” she says. “It’s a challenge not only for therapists, but for all physicians who deal with patients experiencing trauma.”
As his career moved forward, Dr. Hubbard realized what his patients needed from him depended on their prognosis and treatment plan. “If patients have a disease that can be treated, I work to reassure them and their families that the stress they are feeling is only temporary. For those with no cure, I provide comfort and relief from the pain,” he says.