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  • Writer's picturekjrusseth

Empathic Care: Addressing Physician Burnout and Retention

Updated: Jun 29

A recent perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “A Reason to Retire?” touched on the complex emotional landscape physicians must navigate over the course of their careers. The author, a veteran cardiologist, shares his journey from initially compartmentalizing patient experiences to eventually identifying more closely with their suffering as he aged. He implies that this erosion of “professional distance” contributed to his decision to retire.

While the author’s reflections provide valuable insights, the conclusions left me concerned. Medicine cannot afford to lose caring, seasoned physicians like him due to their deepening empathy. Nor can patients afford treatment from doctors who distance themselves to the point of disconnection. If the strength of physicians' compassion for their patients becomes a liability driving them from the field, we must overhaul the systems causing this crisis.

The brutal pace of modern medicine leaves little room for meaningful doctor-patient relationships...

On an individual level, physicians should feel comfortable setting boundaries to avoid burnout without sacrificing compassion...

I can personally attest to the challenges of maintaining empathy within inflexible systems not designed for human connection. After hitting a breaking point due to unsustainable pressures, I made the difficult choice to leave a hospital system and open a private practice. This transition allowed me to regain autonomy over my schedule and patient load, providing space to fully engage with individuals seeking care. While letting go of institutional support was initially an emotional reckoning, I knew remaining in the status quo would have forced me out of clinical practice entirely.

Not every physician can or wants to make such a move, and I empathize with those who remain entrenched in rigid bureaucracies. My experience shows there are alternatives for those at their tipping point. By continuing to provide care on my own terms, I've found a way to sustain the empathy that first called me to this profession. Medicine needs more options like this to retain its heart.

With compassion, the practice of medicine is elevated from mundane repetition of procedures to a sacred conduit of healing. In a broken system, empathy may carry a terrible weight. But we cannot let it become a casualty. The cost would be far too high for physicians, patients, and the soul of an ancient art. Together, we can lift this burden and create space for humanity to shine again.

For additional resources, questioning what to do as a next step, check out this information on burnout and resiliency through the creation of sustainable work.

For physicians reaching their breaking point, there are resources available, including the AMA’s Steps Forward program, a local physician wellness initiative supported by Dane County Medical Society called Life Bridge, and the national physician support line staffed by volunteer psychiatrists, 1 (888) 409-0141.

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