Hospital Impact—To solve physician burnout, healthcare leaders must stop pointing fingers

Doctor pausing with a frown on his face
When it comes to physician burnout, healthcare leaders often point their finger at those being harmed the most: doctors and nurses. (Getty/Wavebreakmedia)
headshot of Thomas Dahlborg
Thomas Dahlborg

For many years, I have been fortunate enough to travel around the country to coach, lead and serve in the effort to bring empathy and trust back into the healthcare system.

I’ve worked with CEOs, chief operating officers, chief experience officers, chief financial officers, chief nursing officers and other healthcare leaders.

And yet it was one encounter some years ago that drove it all home for me and reminded me of just how far we still must travel on this journey.

There was this one hospital I frequented that truly touched my heart. Yes, the leadership team was terrific, and I was inspired with each visit. But that one day, it was not the inspiration and engagement of the C-suite; it was an individual on the front lines (similar to the physician assistant story I shared so long ago) who made the greatest impact.

RELATED: To make a difference, listen to frontline healthcare workers

One of the things that I always enjoy doing when I am onsite at a hospital is to simply sit and be present in the lobby of the organization. I watch, listen and observe, as there’s much to be learned in doing so.

And during each of my frequent visits at this one particular facility, I witnessed this $9-per-hour employee: 

  • Personally escort people from the lobby to wherever they needed to go (including me).
  • Ask if an older couple was cold, and then when receiving a yes, quickly gather a blanket and gently tuck them in as they sat together in each other’s arms on a lobby couch.
  • Greet each happy, sad, scared, anxious, grumpy or mad patient and family member with a wonderful smile and a: “Welcome. How may I help you?” And then, “Have a blessed day.”
  • Make appropriate eye contact.
  • Smile constantly.
  • Touch appropriately.
  • Care for others with all her heart.

“I love what I do,” she told me one morning. “I love connecting with people. I love helping. But I am not special. I simply care.”

And then as a harried and stressed co-worker walked by she added, “So many people who work here may have forgotten why they do. They look so angry. They look like ‘don’t talk to me’ and ‘don’t look at me.’ It is sad, Tom. They came here to help others and the stressors of the ever-changing healthcare system is burning them out. It is harming them. And the harm to them can lead to harm to all those you see here. Our patients and families. I just want to hug them and tell them to remember why they came here in the first place. I want to share my heart and compassion with them, to hold them—just like that older gentleman is holding his wife under that blanket—and let them know that I am here for them too.”

There is much discussion, especially as of late, about physician burnout. We are also seeing large numbers of nurses burning out and leaving the workforce.

RELATED: The high cost of physician burnout: Hospitals spend millions on recruitment and lost productivity

We talk of resiliency and in doing so point our finger at those being harmed the most: doctors and nurses.

As healthcare leaders, we wonder why doctors and nurses are “not engaged,” are “not honoring our values,” are “not willing to partner” or are “misbehaving,” while not recognizing that perhaps we are the problem. We are the ones who designed the system. We are the ones who continue to talk a good game about concepts like “patient-centered care,” while at the same time creating systems designed to achieve the outcomes we are getting: continued and increasing patient harm.

And now add to this the harm we continue to do to doctors and nurses and many others throughout the healthcare system. In fact, in a post on her blog, Pam Wible, M.D., argues that we should call it “physician abuse” rather than physician burnout.

A hug will help, and the frontline hospital employee I met that day is absolutely the right person to offer one. But it is also incumbent upon the rest of us healthcare leaders to learn from her and care again. We are harming way too often and caring not nearly enough. Healthcare must become healthCARING if we want to save those we are blessed to care for and care about—and it will take all of us.

If our mission says “compassion,” then it is a must that we are compassionate to all those who serve as well as all those we serve. Not doing either harms both. If we commit to integrity, then we must honor each of our values. No exception. (By the way, there is no integrity without grit, so let’s grit it out and be honorable.)

Healthcare is hard. And it is incredibly rewarding to one’s heart and soul when we bring heart and soul to all we do, for ourselves and others.

There must be no more pointing fingers—unless we are looking in the mirror.

Thomas H. Dahlborg, M.S.H.S.M., is an industry voice for relationship-centered compassionate care and servant leadership. He is a keynote speaker, author, consultant and adviser and is the president of the Dahlborg Healthcare Leadership Group.