OMED 2017

Q&A: Arianna Huffington on physician burnout

Hospital systems and institutions need to take better care of physicians to address the burnout crisis, Huffington says.


At this year’s OMED, keynote speaker Arianna Huffington spoke about the importance of sleep, wellbeing and staying present in the moment. The business leader believes hospital systems and institutions need to take better care of physicians to address the burnout crisis. The DO sat down with Huffington to find out her perspective on what needs to change in medical culture to better support physician wellness.

There’s currently a burnout and wellness crisis among physicians. Much of it is attributed to a health care system that places too many demands on physicians’ time. What recommendations would you give to hospitals and health clinics on changes they could make to better promote physician wellness?

Hospitals need to look at the data. The data is very unequivocal. When residents and doctors haven’t slept enough, when they’re keeping incredibly long and unsustainable hours, they’re going to make mistakes. These mistakes can be tragic, and they’re unnecessary.

You can’t blame the resident or the doctor. It’s the institution that has made them feel that it’s their fault if they can’t perform optimally on very little sleep or no sleep. We need to change that. We need to look at the science, and we need to establish hours and schedules that make it possible for everyone practicing to actually be sufficiently recharged before they make decisions.

Your book Thrive is all about the importance of wellness for true success in a world where people tend to focus on money and power. Because the training and work is so demanding, medical students and physicians can sometimes become focused on their careers to the exclusion of other areas of their lives. What specific advice would you give to them on making space for wellness in their lives?

We all need to deal with our addiction to our smartphones. Even when residents or doctors are not working, they can get lost in social media or texting or Candy Crush or whatever their technological addiction is.

Learning to set boundaries in our relationship to technology and our relationship with smartphones can help us reconnect with ourselves and our loved ones and to be fully present in our lives, not distracted and multitasking. If you’re constantly distracted, you’re missing the whole point of your life.

You’re a big proponent of meditation, mindfulness and unplugging to improve one’s wellbeing. Many physicians are skeptical that these tactics will help them overcome their frustration with the burdensome aspects of their jobs, such as patient quotas and dealing with electronic health records. What would you say to them?

Obviously the medical profession is very science-driven. Why are we ignoring the science when it comes to the importance of sleep and mindfulness and breaks in terms of our performance and our effectiveness?

These things are not arbitrary. They’re not one person’s views or ideas. They’re all based on the latest science and data. It’s very important to update our views on how we can work optimally and change schedules, institutions and expectations accordingly.

Hopefully doing this will begin to address the tragic epidemic of burnout that has led to so many mental health problems, depression and anxiety among physicians, not to mention suicides. Trends are going in the wrong direction. We really need to stop, take stock and make wiser decisions.

What are the top three tips you would give to anyone looking to quickly improve their sense of wellbeing?

Bringing more wellness into our lives is a series of micro-steps, that’s how you change behavior. For me, the first important micro-step involves our sleep. Sleep has been dismissed as something we can do without for many decades, but now all the latest science makes it very clear that sleep is not optional.

Unless you have a genetic mutation, which means you can do with little sleep, the majority of us need seven to nine hours. So I would say that’s the first step. Start with getting 30 more minutes than you do now, unless you are getting all the sleep you need, and build up to the sleep you really need to operate optimally.

The second step is to create pauses during the day, even if it’s one minute, to consciously breathe, inhale and exhale, because so often what creates an enormous amount of stress in our lives is the fact that we don’t stop to release stress and renew and refuel, and it’s so easy to do that. I highly recommend it.

The third thing is to focus every day on what we’re grateful for. So often we tend to focus on what is not working in our lives, and every day is a mixture of things going well and things not going so well. If we can focus on what we’re grateful for, we will bring a lot of grace into our lives.


  1. R.Husband DO

    Interesting but overall misses the mark,
    Burnout hardly existed before the start up of the EHR, this brought many negative influences into the daily primary care office including forced multitasking , excessive screen time and distraction from direct face to face communication with patients with and their families. Patients are people that bring lists of complaints and questions that are much more complex than the data points that administrators, insurance companies,and government use to review for their metrics. This and many other tech driven changes have changed the expectations of what doctor can actually accomplish for there patients and themselves. A cultural change like that thrust on the medical profession by this tech revolution cannot be addressed with improved sleep habits and “coping ” techniques,it will require real thought and planning by people that understand the actual environment we work in today.

  2. B.T.

    Why is advice being asked from a non-medical professional who has little to no experience in our profession and does not have real life experience of the issues at hand for us?

  3. Dr. Bob, DO

    The EHR is of tremendous blame. Click click click click click click click all for government mandated checks. Don’t do it and medicare payments go down. Government screws everything up.

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy