In the pandemic’s early months, people riding out the first wave of COVID-19 in New York City took to their windows at 7 p.m. every night to cheer, bang together pots and pans, and otherwise celebrate the healthcare professionals risking life and limb to care for the afflicted. But while those tributes did not go unnoticed by their target audiences, they provided small solace amid the larger professional and existential angst with which physicians were struggling long before March 2020.
Dr. Jonathan Fisher, a cardiologist and certified mindfulness instructor, saw much of this coming. Some 10 years earlier, he found himself laid low with anxiety and depression. “I used to go into the office and just barrel through patients one by one,” he recalled. “My staff hated me. I was just this jerk who was cold.”
As part of his own healing, Fisher started speaking about the professional burnout he was experiencing and its effect on his overall well-being. Somewhat to his surprise, he found a receptive audience among colleagues and patients alike.
“There’s a spectrum of words that are okay for doctors to use. You can say, ‘I’m feeling stressed’ or ‘I’m exhausted,’ or you can criticize your administration and create this kind of us-versus-them mindset,” he explained. “But when you say, ‘I have anxiety,’ that’s risky. People go to doctors because doctors are confident.”
Once Fisher shared his struggles — “what I did was come forward with my deep vulnerability as a human” — other physicians responded by reaching out to discuss their own. Encouraged, Fisher talked more extensively about his history of depression. “You thought that fewer patients would come in the door, but it was exactly the opposite: More patients did.”
That’s a big piece of the origin story leading up to the first-ever Ending Physician Burnout Summit, scheduled for August 24-26. Fisher, with support from numerous peers and FCB Health, has spent the last several months assembling an ambitious slate of speakers and topics, all with the goal of addressing an issue not discussed anywhere near as often as it needs to be.
“For physicians, there are barriers to actually raising your hand and asking for help,” said FCB Health EVP, executive creative director Mike Devlin. “There’s some wellness built into medical school curricula, but it’s not enough.”
Added FCB Health VP, creative director Justin Kovarsky, “You have many different people trying to address this, but there are a million different silos that aren’t unified. What we’re trying to do is help everyone rally together around this, rather than have all these people who mean well keep working separately in their silos.”
The topics set to be covered at the Summit comprise everything from day-to-day wellness strategies and the future of physician self-care to inspiration that might be found in songwriting and the development of a “peak performance athlete’s mindset.” Physicians from a range of disciplines will share the virtual stage with attorneys, authors, entrepreneurs, organizational psychologists and spiritual health advocates. Featured speakers include Arianna Huffington, Dr. James Doty and Dr. BJ Miller.
J. Corey Feist, CEO of the University of Virginia Physicians Group and the co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, pointed to a host of recent data about physician distress — that physicians and nurses die by suicide at two times the rate of the general population, for instance — as another sign that the focus on HCP well-being is long overdue.
“The stigma is overwhelming, not just in terms of talking about [physician burnout] but also structurally, in terms of licensure and hospital credentials,” he said. “The more we talk about the stigma, the more opportunity there is to overcome it.”
All of this, of course, begs the question: Why did it take a pandemic to alert people to a crisis that has been raging for at least half a decade?
Dr. Dike Drummond, a family practice physician, wellness coach and the founder and CEO of TheHappyMD, characterized COVID-19 as “the great accelerator” — not just in the way it pushed forward the adoption of tech-driven solutions like telehealth, but also in the gasoline it poured on the fire of physician burnout.
“Doctors are righteously pissed off,” he said, pointing to an imminent “Boomer physician retirement cliff” fueled by professional dissatisfaction and disgust and exacerbated by the pandemic. “People in healthcare organization leadership should be bolting upright in bed at night in a cold sweat contemplating all these docs being gone not in 10 years but in 18 months. I’ve never been as pessimistic as I am right now… I don’t know how, a year from now, we deliver healthcare in America.”
Like Feist and Fisher, however, Drummond believes that the open and frank discussion set to take place during the Ending Physician Burnout Summit can only help. “It’s going to be a cheat sheet for wellness champions. What I’m hoping to do is shorten people’s learning curves,” he said.
Fisher is even more optimistic. Asked what success for the Summit would look like, he responded, “Just doing it. People coming together like this is meaningful and important.”
As for his longer-term goals, Fisher is thinking big. “After the event, the traditional way of talking about doctors — it’s just over,” he continued. “You’re going to know how everyone on your staff is doing, emotionally and physically and mentally. There are going to be constant interventions in real-time and they will help. You watch — patient care will improve within a year.”