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The Importance of Physician Wellness

Posted by on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 in From the Dean, Winter 2018 .

Photo by Anne Rayner

Today, medicine is putting more focus than ever on patients’ social, behavioral and psychological dynamics, as it is clear these factors are not only major drivers of health, but in many cases are even more consequential for longevity and quality of life than their medical care. As we center on these issues, considering our own house — the psychological wellness of the clinician workforce — is receiving attention that is long-overdue.

Burnout, a phenomenon all too familiar to healthcare professionals of all kinds, has reached epidemic proportions, with more than 50 percent of physicians in the U.S. reporting professional burnout. Mounting evidence indicates a profusion of stressors are taking their toll. The rapid pace of industry disruption and the ever-increasing burden of regulatory compliance are causing lost productivity, risks to mental and physical health, eroding quality and safety, diminished patient satisfaction, staff turnover and lost revenue. At the extreme, our profession is experiencing unacceptably high rates of depression, early retirement and suicide.

At stake is nothing less than the “joy of work” that clinicians bring to their patients — joy that is inextricably linked to emotional well-being, and the satisfaction we experience from careers dedicated to caring for patients.

Not surprisingly, studies show that clinicians overwhelmingly report that relationships with patients are the most satisfying feature of their practice. Leading stressors are the clerical tasks tied to ever-increasing regulatory overhead and billing compliance, a sense of erosion of clinical autonomy, and a growing feeling that healthcare is becoming a commodity.

Analyses conducted by the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic found that more than half of all physicians are now experiencing at least one symptom of burnout, with specialists on the frontlines at the highest risk. A recent report by the Blue Ridge Academic Health Group, a study group of academic health center CEOs, offers one of the first systematic attempts to quantify the economic impact of clinician burnout (physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals), which amounts to as much as $150 billion a year, or 4.7 percent of the nation’s annual healthcare expenditure.

Recognizing the enormity of this issue, it’s time we put a great deal more energy into building a working environment that better manages these stressors and supports clinician resilience. As you’ll read in the cover story for this issue of Vanderbilt Medicine, we aim to play an important role in this much-needed paradigm shift.

Since early 2017, a 16-member multidisciplinary group, the VUMC Task Force for Empowerment and Well-being, has been performing the important work of identifying practical steps that will enable us to be proactive rather than reactive — to take control of these issues.

We owe our patients and ourselves nothing less.


Jeff Balser, MD, PhD
President and CEO, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Dean, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine