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Is Clinical Burnout the Global Warming of Healthcare?

A graphic illustrate the effects of healthcare burnout by comparing it to global warming

“Maybe they should just get tough” is not an uncommon reaction from older physicians to the growing number of younger doctors experiencing burnout. Many would argue that these feelings are outliers from the general population of senior physicians — and they may be right. Except that there are dozens of conferences focused on changing healthcare culture to better detect and rectify challenges with clinical wellness and burnout early on.

The fact is that healthcare burnout is not very different from global warming and climate change. Despite this summer being a record-breaking scorcher, many will call it a typical cyclical heat wave.

Like climate change deniers, many burnout deniers operate from a “back when I was an intern” frame of reference. They may argue that medical schools have gone soft in training, leading to a disconnect between what clinicians learned and the actual pressures of the profession.

The difference with clinical burnout deniers is that, unlike climate, they’re experiencing the severe effects of losing a talented medical workforce daily. Add to that the ripple effect of higher patient loads, less patient time, and dramatic increases in documentation — with less support staff to do it.

It’s the equivalent of saying, “I didn’t believe the earth was warming until my home and family were washed away in a flood.”

As we know from the pandemic, countering the beliefs of deniers is tricky and almost inevitably turns political. Facts and data rarely convince because deniers will still question legitimate sources, even compared to their source-free peers. I digress, but there are some interesting research findings related to party affiliation and death from COVID.

So how do we convince the burnout deniers that the problem is real and reaching epidemic levels?

One of the more apparent solutions is that despite the shortage of young physicians, there is an increased awareness among those who enter the profession about the causes of burnout and the severity of the problem. An all-around more tech-savvy cohort, they also know that technology is both a solution and a cause of the problem.

Many burnout deniers are tech-phobic and calloused. That’s not the case with newer entrants who now serve as wellness evangelists with their peers and, ironically, mentor the Boomers through recent advancements in the professional culture.

But the element leading to a greater understanding of the crisis among doctors, both young and old, is the patient. During a 100-day COVID-19 hospitalization, I realized that the emotional toll of COVID-19 on my caretakers was arguably as debilitating as it was on me. Many candid conversations with my doctors and nurses gave me tremendous insights into how burnout can result in poorer patient outcomes.

For this reason, I would argue that any solution for burnout must include the “customer,” who is the ultimate benefactor of solving this mental health epidemic.

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