Have you heard (or lived) this burnout story?

Invariably, whenever I write a column, someone inspires me along the way. For this column, credit goes to Thomas Dahlborg, whose recent entry recounted the difficult tradeoffs of a primary-care physician who feels more like a production worker than healer.

I trained at a time when medicine was a calling and I enjoy working as a locum tenens surgeon in New England. I empathize with the physicians Dahlborg describes, who fit the definition of hamster healthcare--running faster just to stay in the same place.

In an article about workplace burnout, I recounted the story of a cardiothoracic surgeon who wrote:

"Patients and their families did not matter anymore; in fact, they were often obstacles, even enemies...I wondered, 'What have I become?' I had been breaking the speed limit of life, and the law was catching up with me. I had no breathing room, no margin, no reserve. I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

"Now, four years later, I am a much happier member of a three-person group of hospital-employed thoracic surgeons...The journey from where I was to where I am now required a huge pushback against a system that rewards producers and turns a blind eye to the consequences until they get out of hand and patients and families suffer....Only rarely do healthcare professionals connect the dots between their personal philosophy and their daily activities."

Burnout occurs when work and/or personal demands exceed one's ability to cope.