All the wellness in the world won’t help physician burnout

I will always be a vascular surgeon.

But let’s be clear; I no longer practice vascular surgery.

Despite a busy practice, happy patients, local awards, and the respect of my peers, I quit. I gave it all up. All of the education, all of the endless training, all of the time, hard work, and, yes, all of the salary — I turned my back on it.


I am a recovering patient with constant suicidal ideation. I’ve stood on a bridge wanting to jump. I’ve walked to the top of my hospital’s medical tower and only turned around when a nurse called me. I knew if I stayed in medicine, I would eventually kill myself.

Was I burned out or just not resilient enough? I had a good work-life balance. I didn’t have EHR overload. I had a good relationship with my hospital administration, and felt respected. I even worked on self-care. I ate well. Hell, I did yoga!

What drove me out? Rather than burnout, it was depression. Severe depression, to be precise. So does my story help other doctors? Does it relate to the average physician who might be suffering day in day out? I am writing to show that a brush with mental illness should be an alarm for any physician. But I am also writing this to make our profession at least consider mental health issues as a possibility, rather than the taboo subject that it is. That message makes it relatable to all.

Burnout is very relatable for most physicians, even those who don’t experience it.

Physician wellness is now a massive industry with wellness conferences, wellness curricula in medical schools and residencies, and wellness has even entered the “C-suite” with health systems adding chief wellness officers to their organizational charts.

Does mental illness in medicine get the same attention? Undeniably no. And this is because of one very unavoidable reason: the repercussions of disclosing mental illness could irrevocably affect a physician’s career.

The fear of losing privileges, credentialing, and licensing keeps physicians mum about their conditions. Mental illness goes unchecked in those who keep silent. That is what happened to me. Allowing the demon to grow in my mind for years without confronting it gave my worst self-hate a place to flourish.

Do doctors keep silent about burnout?

At your average medical conference, when a speaker asks how many doctors feel burnout, they are met by a sea of raised hands. Burnout is the hot topic. It’s acceptable, even normalized. But we know that burnout can lead to severe sequelae, including depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Do severe burnout sufferers share details of such dire conditions? Do they participate in resilience workshops? Mindfulness exercises? Does it matter?

They may even diligently attend all of the wellness drills, yet keep their severe symptoms hidden. They might tell others, “It’s just burnout,” an explanation that provides sufficient cover for their more ominous symptoms. They’ll more readily blame the system rather than anything inside their brains. “It’s the administration.” “It’s this damned EHR.” “It’s the long hours.”

Why is burnout treated differently? One answer may lie in the fact that although a diagnosis for burnout technically exists (Z73.0), it is considered an occupational condition rather than a medical one.

Furthermore, without any classification of burnout in the current version of the DSM, one can plausibly deny that burnout is a true mental illness. Thus authorities are none the wiser if a physician discloses burnout. This is a refuge for presumably the majority of burnout sufferers. Most burned-out physicians would even balk at the idea of burnout being considered a mental illness. “I’m not mentally ill. I just hate my job!”

I no longer care about how burnout or depression gets classified because I no longer practice. I have no job to lose. I do, however, care about how burnout is treated among its worst sufferers. Regardless of etiology, I know what it feels like to feel that desperate, that hopeless, that alone. So I argue that burnout treatment should have a mental health component, regardless of DSM or ICD status. In addition to the personal resilience arm and the structural/organizational improvement arm, I propose a mental health arm of burnout recovery.

Am I splitting hairs? As long as people are getting treatment for burnout, does it matter if we call it mental health or not? For the majority of burned-out doctors, probably not. Resilience and mindfulness exercises suffice. But for that subset who are suffering those severe effects of burnout, I guarantee you one thing: all the yoga in the world will not fix their ill.

Ideally, we would approach all doctors broadly with a focus on mental health, burnout or not. Imagine gathering a small group of doctors in a room. You tell them to talk about mental illness. Nobody speaks. Those with mental illness will certainly clam up, while those without mental illness have nothing to say. Instead, if you tell the group to talk about mental health, it at least provides a forum to discuss things that have otherwise been considered taboo: feelings, emotions, yes, mental health.

If we treat doctors, emphasizing mental health, we can, for the moment dodge the specter of mental illness disclosure. More importantly, it gets the doctor talking. Untreated mental illness may be the biggest risk of all, more so than burnout. I have two decades’ worth of untreated depression to support this claim. Treatment only comes to those who seek it. Talking about mental health as opposed to illness, may give a suffering physician an avenue to speak to someone — anyone. It lets the affected physician know they are not alone.

That is the hope that all doctors can talk about their mental health, whether they have burnout or not, mental illness or not. Just get people talking. For now, I’d be happy if we addressed the mental health of burnout. Even if we just talk about it.

Leonard Su is a vascular surgeon and founder, Vocementium.

I didn’t become a physician to do data entry

The trouble began when I needed to open the electronic health record (EHR) system for the tenth time that day. EHRs have significantly changed the way we practice medicine. They have completely eliminated the need for storage and transport of paper charts, reduced prescription errors secondary to illegible handwritings of physicians and provided an excellent platform to maximize billing for services rendered. However, in terms of creating a smooth workflow for physicians and in facilitating meaningful face to face encounters with our patients, all EHR systems have completely failed.

Sara, the nurse for Ms. Tucker, called me saying, “Doc, Ms. Tucker is back from the cardiac catheterization lab. She is complaining of a mild headache.”

“It must be from the nitroglycerine I gave her in the lab; please give the ordered Tylenol, it will resolve soon,” I said.

“I don’t have any orders, Doc. All the orders for this patient are on hold,” she replied.

“On hold? What do you mean?” I said surprised.

“Yes. All orders go on automatic hold when a patient goes for a procedure and comes back unless you reorder. It’s the new EHR upgrade,” she said.

“OK, I will do it as soon as possible,” I said, taking in a deep breath and involuntarily rubbing my forehead.

To reorder Ms. Tucker’s medications, I needed to log into the EHR system again. I had to do it remotely, as I was at another hospital in town that used a completely different EHR system, though it was only ten minutes away. I had to enter my username and password carefully and slowly three times in response to three different prompts in addition to entering the secret code that was texted to my cell phone. After what felt like an eternity, I logged into this most sacred, highly-classified, triple-password-protected space of EHR. I wondered if the FBI have to enter their passwords thrice to log on to their everyday workspace. As I was able to log onto the EHR system without seeing the prompt “Incorrect username and or password,” anytime during my three-password entries, I regarded it as my greatest success for the day. The fact that Ms. Tucker’s procedure was uncomplicated and smooth faded in comparison to this success.

I opened Ms. Tucker’s chart. There were twenty-one tabs vertically on the left-hand corner of the screen and eighteen tabs horizontally on the top of the screen. I quickly glanced through the cluttered twenty-one vertical tabs; I clicked on the one I am looking for — “transfer medication reconciliation” in the 19th slot. A new grid showing sixteen held orders opened. I selected each of them separately and clicked on “continue.”

Select and continue.

Sixteen times two: thirty-two clicks.

I was fidgety. I was not sure of even reviewing each order. I just clicked and clicked. Final tab. Review and sign. Clicked. End of my rendezvous with EHR for today. I hoped. The age of “clerical” physicians continues, I mused.

A few weeks ago, when there was EHR system breakdown, patients were still taken care of. Nurses took verbal orders. It was unquestionably chaotic, but for me, it was bliss. I was on call for acute heart attacks that day. Ms. Copper drove her husband to the hospital with sudden-onset chest pain. Mr. Cooper had a cardiac arrest in the parking lot of our hospital. He was revived after a brief period of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and taken immediately to the cardiac catheterization lab. I opened his occluded left circumflex artery successfully, and he was transported to the intensive care unit in a stable condition. No one pestered me regarding entering orders before doing the procedure.

After the procedure, I wrote down the report and all the orders on a single plain sheet of paper in fifteen minutes. Zero clicks. I then went to meet Ms. Cooper in the family lounge. Usually, I am interrupted by messages from the nursing staff that family is waiting for me when putting orders or vice-versa that there is some problem with order entry when I am meeting with the family. This didn’t happen that day. Ms. Cooper had my undivided attention for a full twenty minutes. Her eyes filled with tears of gratitude at the end of our conversation. She hugged me and said, “Thank you for saving my husband’s life.” I didn’t have to rush to correct orders or type in my notes. The bliss, unfortunately, lasted only for twenty-four hours, and once the software was uploaded again, the usual “digital” drudgery continued.

I chose to be a physician to care for people. I value my direct face-to-face interactions with my patients. I want to hear their stories told by them in their own words. I cherish their smiles, their tears, their gratitude, their handshakes and hugs. I did not sign up for screen time with a computer, speed typing or clicking. I did not sign up to type passwords multiple times.

The leading, if not the only, cause reported for physician burnout is workflow issues related to the use of EHR systems. Instead of providing meaningful clinical documentation for easy communication among health care providers, it has evolved into this massive, cumbersome giant with so many interfaces, cluttered screens, redundancy and duplication requiring innumerable clicks, selects, templates and passwords with no added clinical value but only frustration and burnout for physicians. The software has to be re-designed for clinicians to efficiently gather data, enter orders and communicate relevant clinical information without having bloated notes and cluttered screens that are catered for easy billing and coding. Clinicians together with hospital administrators and information technology professionals should be actively involved in the development, testing and optimization of new electronic features to streamline the workflow. For me, there will be no joy in the practice of medicine until my frustrating rendezvous with EHRs end.

The names used in essay have been modified to maintain anonymity. It is a fictionalized account of true events.

Jaya Mallidi is an interventional cardiologist.