July President’s Message: Medicine is a lonely profession; physicians need one another

In President's Message by admin

by Michael Lievens, MD —

As many of you already know, we recently lost a colleague to suicide. Dr. Peg Bicker always struck me as quiet, dedicated and deeply caring. I thought very highly of her.

Most of my interactions with Peg were in the hospital, often late at night. She worked hard, and her patients felt how much she cared about them.

Losing a thoughtful, kind and bright human being, and physician, is really sad. It is, of course, hard to image what her family and loved ones must be going through. Our deepest sympathies go out to them. Our hearts also go out to her patients, who I suspect will miss her dearly as well.

Deaths of people we know, love and respect – and sometimes even deaths of complete strangers – seem to get us thinking about our own lives. What is really important? What should my priorities be, and am I living accordingly?

Obviously, family and loved ones should top anyone’s list of priorities. I don’t want to think about my world without my wife, kids and new grandchild being a part of it. They are the most important part of my life.

Yet, I don’t spend near enough time with them. I spend most of my time, it seems, working at a profession that I also love.

The career we have chosen has an ironic twist, however. Most of us are with people all day long – patients and their families, nurses, technicians, aides, receptionists, administrators, and so on. It is a profession largely based on human interaction.

Yet while we are in close proximity to many people, it can be a lonely, somewhat isolated job.

We are serving patients and their families. We question or interrogate them to get the information we need to help them. We spend our energy to win their trust and confidence, give them hope and teach them about their condition. As the servant in this relationship, the interaction is not about us. It is about them, as it should be.

To the many members of the medical team, we are the leader. We seek to build the team, get the team working toward a common goal, and nurture its proper function. All of this takes effort. It does not just happen. It takes work.

What the physician gets out of this effort isn’t necessarily friendship, although that may be possible on some level. We get satisfaction, pride and the respect of the community. We get to share in really tender, personal and meaningful moments of people’s lives.

This is truly a gift. This can bring us great joy, and it is important. But it is sometimes lonely.

Really connecting with patients, getting to see the look of hope in their faces, and helping to lift the burden of worry and fear that they experience is pure gold. Experiencing this with one or two people a day, or even per week, is enough to keep me coming back again and again. But this is not the same as nurturing a personal friendship or being with family. We can be really good at this job and still be lonely.

During our education and training, there is often a deep sense of camaraderie among our classmates. We work closely together, cover for each other and help each other. It is a time in our lives that fosters friendships that sometimes last a lifetime.

When we leave the nest of our training, however, it is not so easy to build new relationships. Our partners may be of a different generation or at a different point in their careers. We don’t have as much in common. Our schedules get tighter, and our time becomes more precious. We often lose that sense of camaraderie. It can get lonely.

I vividly remember an event early in my career, shortly after I started practicing in Wichita. I worked diligently doing a procedure, totally focused on my task. It took longer than expected, but I was thrilled. Technically, it was a great success.

Filled with pride in my accomplishment, I looked around the room, expecting smiles and congratulatory remarks from the team. Instead, I saw tired looks, people looking at their watches, and anxious staff worried about getting home in time to pick up their kids. It was a very crushing, humbling and, yes, lonely moment. Welcome to the post-training real world!

I don’t pretend to know why any person commits suicide. It is clearly not related to their intelligence or character or goodness.

We do have some data, however, on local physicians in regards to burnout.

Many of you were in attendance at the MSSC event reviewing and discussing local data on physician burnout a few months ago. Loneliness is a factor in physician burnout, and it was startling to see how many of us experienced suicidal thoughts at times.

We need to stick together. Our colleagues may need our help, even if it is something as simple as our presence.

So many things are leading us to more isolated working lives – administrative burdens, the electronic health record, payer-related mandates such as prior authorization, MIPS, and on and on.

We need our families and our friends, for sure. More than ever. But we also need our colleagues. They are the people most likely to understand our work-related stresses and concerns.

I love my family. I love my career. Both bring me great joy. I feel so fortunate in so many ways. But there are times when I feel the loneliness of this profession as well. It can happen to any of us.

Be on the lookout for it in yourself and your colleagues, and seek help if needed. This community needs all of us. And each of our families and loved ones need us as well.

We do have some data, however, on local physicians in regards to burnout.

Many of you were in attendance at the MSSC event in May reviewing and discussing local data on physician burnout. Loneliness is a factor in physician burnout, and it was startling to see how many of us experienced suicidal thoughts at times.

We need to stick together. Our colleagues may need our help, even if it is something as simple as our presence.

So many things are leading us to more isolated working lives – administrative burdens, the electronic health record, payer-related mandates such as prior authorization, MIPS, and on and on.

We need our families and our friends, for sure. More than ever. But we also need our colleagues. They are the people most likely to understand our work-related stresses and concerns.

I love my family. I love my career. Both bring me great joy. I feel so fortunate in so many ways. But there are times when I feel the loneliness of this profession as well. It can happen to any of us.

Be on the lookout for it in yourself and your colleagues, and seek help if needed. This community needs all of us. And each of our families and loved ones need us as well.