Conference Coverage

Don’t just work hard; work hard at living



– “A physician falls overboard on a large cruise ship and passengers gather at the guard rail. The first passenger at the guardrail shakes his finger down at the drowning physician and says, ‘You need to learn how to swim!’ Another passenger says, ‘No, man, throw him a life preserver.’ ... Finally, a passenger says, ‘We need better guard rails.’ ”

Dr. Cynthia K. Shortell, professor of surgery at Duke University Durham, N.C.

Dr. Cynthia K. Shortell

That’s the analogy Cynthia K. Shortell, MD used to kick off her presentation on physician burnout and the need for resilience at a symposium on vascular and endovascular issues sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

“Which of these is right? Well, of course, the answer is they all are,” said Dr. Shortell, who is a professor of surgery at Duke University Durham, N.C. But certainly, only the life preserver answer was appropriate at that time for the drowning physician, she added.

Continuing the analogy, Dr. Shortell pointed out that surely there is a man overboard, with 1 in 20 surgeons reporting suicidal ideation. That rate jumps threefold if the surgeon has had a recent medical error. In addition, vascular surgeons in particular are within the top tier of specialties at risk for burnout.

“We do need better guardrails,” she said, and described the need to actively engage with the health care system to help solve these issues, including those involving electronic medical records and operating room inefficiency and use. In addition, there is a great need for additional services that are provided to other high-end professionals, including food, concierge service, gym access, and other services that help with tasks of daily life when physicians need to spend most of their time at the hospital.

But, in the end, Dr. Shortell said, “We do need to learn to swim. Ultimately, we do need to take a role in having responsibility to solve this problem on our own. We need to change the way we think about our work, and the way we think about our health, and the way our culture values working hard instead of working hard at living.”

Dr. Shortell also highlighted the need to deal with musculoskeletal issues arising from the way that surgeons operate. This, along with good leadership, are key factors in preventing and remediating burnout.

Dr. Shortell had no disclosures relevant to her talk.

Next Article: