Letters from Maine

Is there a resilience deficit?


Even if you have never experienced a symptom of burnout, you probably have at least one colleague who has. In the last decade, collateral damage from physician burnout has earned it a place on the agenda of the American Academy of Pediatrics and most other physician organizations.

When one steps back and takes a longer view, burnout is simply a poor fit between physicians and their roles. An increasing number of physicians are finding themselves in jobs in which – for a variety of reasons – they feel uncomfortable. Eventually, the discomfort resulting from that poor fit becomes so unbearable the only solution is to change jobs or retire.

A weary man slouches over a computer monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock
Is the increase in burnout an indication that the role of the physician has changed? Or is it because people entering the profession are less adaptable than their predecessors to the demands of the job? That older physicians and physicians in training are experiencing burnout suggests that a change in the demands of the job is at least partly responsible.

However, an article in Pediatrics entitled “Seeking professional resilience” addresses burnout from the perspective that physician vulnerability is a major contributor to the problem (Pediatrics. 2018, Feb 1. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-2388). The author, Abby R. Rosenberg, MD, suggests that one solution to burnout is helping physicians learn how “to maintain physical and emotional well-being in the face of adversity,” that is, “resilience.”

It turns out that the recent buzz surrounding “resilience” has drawn a throng of theorists. I guess if we can have chaos theory, we can have resilience theories. Dr. Rosenberg sorts these theories into three categories based on whether they consider resilience an intrinsic trait, a process of adaptation, or an outcome. She offers an alternative description in which resilience is conceived as “a process of harnessing the resources we need to sustain well-being.” Dr. Rosenberg’s suggestions of how this harnessing process can be achieved are certainly worth reading, but I fear that most physicians threatened with burnout won’t have the time or the composure to follow her recommendations. Fifty years of watching physicians both thrive and flame out has convinced me that in most cases, resilience is an intrinsic trait gifted to the recipient at birth.

I am sure there are older physicians who believe that burnout is just another case of “they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to” and would claim that young physicians just don’t have the same grit that we had a generation ago. I guess it is possible that the shift away from the owner/operator model toward one in which a physician has become a cog in the wheel of a large corporation has selected for physicians who are less resilient by nature. But I suspect that the number of resilient physicians is unchanged over the last hundred years. It is more likely that even those blessed with a resilient nature enter their training challenged by a burden of debt significantly greater than my peers and I faced 50 years ago.

The problem isn’t the resiliency deficit. Burnout is the result of a job that has evolved into one with challenges that even the more resilient physicians struggle to tolerate. Under a litigious cloud, hunched over a computer for half the day, the modern physician must struggle to find relevance in a situation in which he has relinquished control to a system that may not share his values.

Refining the selection process to find even more resilient candidates for medical school might lower the burnout rate by a point or two. However, the real answer requires a major overhaul of medical delivery system so that providers can once again feel that every hour they invest is meaningful. The privilege to practice medicine always has required sacrifices on the part of the physician. However, without a sense of purpose, these sacrifices can become intolerable.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.
Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@frontlinemedcom.com.

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