3 lessons for physicians from Doctors Without Borders

Doctors posing for the camera
Doctors must remember why they got into medicine in the first place: to help patients. (American College of Emergency Physicians)

There’s a certain irony to the fact that so many doctors who work in the comfort of their medical offices, with air conditioning and running water, are dissatisfied with their work.

Yet doctors who volunteer in humanitarian causes, such as going to Sri Lanka after a devastating tsunami, work in hot, dirty conditions with limited resources but have few complaints, wrote Robert Pearl, M.D., author and Stanford University professor, in a contributed blog post on Forbes.

Robert Pearl, The Permanente Medical Group
Robert Pearl, M.D.

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As the former CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, the country’s largest medical group, Pearl helped send doctors to Sri Lanka back in 2004 when he asked for volunteers to provide emergency relief services. He has been involved in other relief efforts.

Doctors, he said, must reconnect with the fundamental purpose of medicine—helping patients—to curb the cynicism and burnout that affect so many.

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He offered three lessons doctors and others in the healthcare field can learn from organizations such as Doctors Without Borders.

  1. Remember the purpose of the medical profession: On volunteer trips, doctors work 14 to 16 hour days, often in scorching heat and without pay, but they almost never talked about those hardships, Pearl said.

    “Instead, they spoke of the camaraderie, their sense of purpose, and the memories they will cherish for the rest of their lives,” he wrote.
  2. Create a system with operational efficiency: Relief efforts depend on efficiency and attention to detail, in contrast to inefficiencies in U.S. medical centers that are the norm, Pearl said.
  3. Have a clear mission: During relief efforts, all the doctors understand what they are doing and why: Save as many lives as possible.

    “If our system were designed to save the most lives, we would do a better job of preventing disease, avoiding complications from chronic illness and minimizing medical errors,” he wrote.
    Pearl is donating the proceeds from his recently published book, “Mistreated: Why We Think We’re Getting Good Healthcare—And Why We’re Usually Wrong,” to Doctors Without Borders.

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