Who Heals the Healers?

October 03, 2019
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to give a keynote at the American Conference on Physician Health, I found these startling statistics in U.S. News and World Report:

  • One-third of physicians report experiencing burnout at any given point
  • Doctors are 15 times more likely to burn out than professionals in any other line of work
  • 45 percent of primary care physicians report that they would quit if they could afford to do so
  • Physicians have a 10 to 20 percent higher divorce rate than the general population
  • There are 300 to 400 physician suicide deaths each year

This information had a great impact as I prepared my remarks for this conference. I often write about the impact our leadership has on our team members. Most leaders consider their influence on them during work hours, but often enough, they don’t think about how their leadership affects them outside the workplace as well.

The response to my keynote – the reaction online and from those who came up to speak to me afterward – affirmed that this is a distressing issue in healthcare. Imagine what it’s like to be a doctor – someone responsible for the health and wellbeing of so many – and not feel valued and cared for.

“Healthcare has changed significantly over the last 20 years, and the pace of change is not letting up,” said Paul DeChant, a family physician for 25 years, who has also had many different leadership roles in healthcare, including CEO of a 300-physician group.

“Everything is more complex – patient demographics, diagnostic and treatment options, diversity in the healthcare workforce, reimbursement mechanisms, regulations, the electronic medical record, etc.,” he said. “All of these put great pressure on the leaders, and many leaders are disconnected from the front-line clinicians who are burning out trying to care for the patients in this complex environment.”

Paul was in the audience for my keynote speech. He currently works as an executive coach to healthcare leaders to implement business systems and approaches to culture to create healthy workplaces that address the root causes of burnout.

“There is great opportunity to improve leadership with the Everybody Matters philosophy and build mutual respect between leadership and the clinicians,” he said.

Another attendee, Dr. George Chiang, the incoming chief of staff at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, who also chairs their wellness advocacy committee, said “In healthcare the problems with leadership involve the limited bandwidth of the local leaders themselves to enact change of a group while still usually being busy with clinical work which is always the priority.”

We rightfully lift up those in the medical community because of the importance of their work. We give them the respect they deserve because of their education, their dedication to healing and the weight of their responsibility to human life. But do we fail to see them as regular people who themselves need care and support?

“As a surgeon to kids, it resonated that everyone is a cherished life and that loved ones caring for loved ones is integral to building our community of appreciation and mutual respect,” Dr. Chiang said, of one of the points in my speech.

The healers can also hurt. Who heals the healers?

“Everyone is so busy trying to respond to the growing expectations and fast-paced changes that we forget sometimes to just slow down and remember we are talking to real people in every role with which we interact,” said Kristin Edwards, who also attended my talk. She is the Medical Director of Palliative Care for Yale New Haven Health–Bridgeport Hospital and was also recently appointed Medical Director of Physician Wellness.

Being a physician in today’s world is an incredibly high-stress position. They literally hold our lives in their hands. It is critical that their leadership in the healthcare industry begins to address issues of stress and burnout with their people.

The fundamentals of Truly Human Leadership seem simple, but are they being practiced in healthcare systems? Are those leaders trying to figure out ways to value the doctors, nurses and all other staff who care for sick?

“I lead a small, but extremely motivated team at work,” Kristin said. “I also have two young children with VASTLY different personalities.  Through both of those experiences, I have learned that what works best is tailoring my development plans to the individuals. But in order to do that, it requires true listening, with an attitude of curiosity, and a fundamental belief in their goodness.”

The way those leaders lead impacts the way people live, and in turn, treat their patients.

“We’re in a situation of leadership malpractice,” said Paul DeChant. “Just as in medicine, if someone is not following the best practices that are available, and patients or employees are being harmed as a result, one could consider this malpractice. It sounds harsh, but the negative impact is serious and can be avoided.”

Leaders in healthcare organizations, the time is now to begin to institute values and processes to heal the healers. Lives depend on it.

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