My first month as a medical intern, over 20 years ago, I learned many important things: how to distinguish heartburn from a heart attack, how to treat pneumonia and alcohol withdrawal, how to perform a spinal tap. What I did not learn was how to manage the stress of carrying an enormous workload and great responsibility while getting little sleep and eating a diet consisting of greasy food from the hospital cafeteria and candy bars from vending machines. Stress management was not taught because the stress of being a physician wasn’t acknowledged. When we were tired, anxious, sad, or sick, we just kept working.
Like athletes and soldiers, we physicians pride ourselves on working through injury, pain, fatigue, and assorted conditions that might sideline other professionals. For decades, doctors have sacrificed their own health and comfort for the sake of their patients, an ideal that has been reinforced by various media, from the embittered and overworked physician in the 1950s film The Last Angry Man to the scores of hard-drinking medical professionals in Scrubs, House, and Grey’s Anatomy.
It would not surprise most people to learn that doctors have higher rates of suicide, alcohol and substance abuse, and job burnout than most people. In the past we might have written off these problems as a natural consequence of doctors working long hours in a highly stressful job, an occupational hazard of people caring for sick people, regrettable but unavoidable.
Doctors could learn a lot about stress reduction from caregivers. Shouldn’t someone develop a meditation just for health care providers?