Physician burnout: Stanford University helps docs protect their own mental health

Stanford University is using the arts and other opportunities to communicate about the challenges doctors face and to help its physicians protect their own mental health, according to a post on Scope, a blog produced by its School of Medicine.

The recent suicides of two former residents at Stanford have focused even more attention on ways to help doctors manage the pressures of the profession and its high rates of suicide, according to the post. The American medical profession loses an average of 300 to 400 physicians to suicide each year.

Stanford oncologist Jonathan Berek, M.D., and medical humanities scholar Jacqueline Genovese wrote about the need for interventions in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.  

Oncologists are particularly susceptible to burnout, depression and substance abuse because of the nature of their job, says Berek, who is director of the Stanford Women's Cancer Center. "As an oncologist, I think it's an important issue because you spend a lot of time breaking bad news, and I have found over the years that the colleagues who deal with it best are the ones with a multifaceted life and who are able to connect with the arts and have many other interests. They deal with the bad news and death and dying much better than others," he said in the blog post.

He and Genovese compare physicians to soldiers facing battle, with both at risk for post-traumatic stress. Stanford has come up with a number of interventions to help its physicians cope. They include communications programs, which Berek directs, to give physicians a safe space to talk about challenging circumstances they face. Physicians can role play difficult situations and how they can provide an empathetic response.

Stanford is also using the arts to help physicians communicate about their work and emotions. The university has a writers group that allows clinicians to share their work, as well as a dinner and discussion series in which physicians can use literature as a mechanism for discussing their challenges. In response to the resident suicides, Stanford also formed a physician committee that sponsors a peer support program. A new Physician Wellness Center is also offering programs on mindfulness-based stress reduction and how to cultivate compassion.

To learn more:
- read the blog post
- see the Journal article