High rates of “burnout” and suicide in the medical profession


A sad turn of events for careers that began with the noblest of intentions.

A recent article in Business Week caught my attention; entitled “Almost Half of Doctors Burned Out.” Before even reading the article, I was thinking about what it must be like for medical doctors in general.

Most of them chose one of the noblest careers for the noblest of reasons — to help people and to make a difference. Then, after a grueling decade of medical school, interning and getting started, they gradually realize that they’re really in the “disease care” business.

They spend their days in a mind-numbing series of 10 or 15-minute sessions with their patients, many of whom are only there to get a prescription for a drug that they heard about on television.

It actually makes me sad to see these articles about “doctor burnout” and the high suicide rates among doctors. In Chapter 8 or our book (Why did no one tell you this before?), I touched on the difficult road for most doctors after medical school, when they discover that they’re trapped in a system that doesn’t promote health. A few paragraphs from our book:

Without a doubt, every doctor wishes to see every one of his or her patients cured of their disease and healthy.Unfortunately, our system doesn’t provide the doctor with the tools needed to make that happen.

After spending many years and a small fortune on their education, those well-intentioned doctors work in a system whereby they earn a living by doing what they have been taught—diagnosing problems, writing prescriptions, and conducting procedures. Teaching patients how to take charge of their own health was never a part of their curriculum; nor would they be able to earn a living if they advocated it in their own practice.

Please understand that this chapter is not about blaming doctors. Rather, it takes a hard look at a system that evolved over the past century. Understanding how this system emerged will help you develop the conviction you will need to successfully chart your own course. (from Chapter 8 of Healthy Eating, Healthy World, BenBella, 2011)

Back to the article regarding doctor burnout. “The number of doctors reporting feeling burned out is surprising and troubling, said Tait Shanafelt, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and lead study author. He said the trend may cause physicians to quit or reduce their workload just as demand for doctors is increasing with the aging population. The issue may get worse as 32 million Americans are expected to get health insurance by 2014 under a new U.S. law, increasing the number of people seeking medical care, he said.

“Right at a time when we are trying to provide care to people who are uninsured and projecting workforce shortages we are seeing this burnout rate creep in, which may cause physicians to reduce workloads and consider early retirement,” Shanafelt said.

A grim situation. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a medical doctor today. Every day they see a steady stream of sick, overweight patients who are typically looking for prescriptions. And they’re supposed to go through a healthy-living check-list with each patient—a message that probably falls mostly on deaf ears. People go to the doctor with problems for which they want a cure—or at the very least, some relief.

My guess is the at the reality of medical practice in the United States bears almost no resemblance to the vision that the future doctors imagined while they were in high school or college. Sadly, some of them may now feel like they’re in a hopeless situation. They’ve probably invested a great deal in their lifestyle and probably pay more for malpractice insurance than most of pay for housing. From the Psychology Today article on suicide in the medical profession (See link below):

For many years now, physicians have had the highest suicide rate compared to people in any other line of work. Is this surprising? Does this happen because doctors are continually exposed to other people’s problems? Because of something about a physician’s lifestyle? Looking at these suicides more closely provides some answers.

The Bottom Line. Most of our medical doctors are in the “disease care” business. They don’t see any patients unless they have a disease. And, in the case of some diseases, like cancer, the patient may not visit the doctor until it’s too late. And, in the case of heart disease, the patient’s first symptom is oftentimes a heart attack.

So, how can a medical doctor develop a practice of promoting health? About 500 MDs a year are now earning continuing medical education credits (CMEs) by taking the online Plant-Based Nutrition course at the T. Colin Campbell Foundation and eCornell. (See link below my signature for details.)

My Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition — Nov. 2009

After earning their certificate, many of these doctors may become interested in expanding their practice to include health promotion in addition to the traditional “disease care,” for which they were trained and on which they depend for their livelihood.

Once more doctors take this step and really start seeing positive results with their patients, perhaps our sad statistics of burnout and suicide will improve. Sounds like a Win-Win for all concerned.

  1. Source article from BusinessWeek“Almost half of doctors burned out”
  2. Source article. The occupation with the highest suicide rate | Psychology Today.
  3. Source article. When Doctors Kill Themselves – Newsweek and The Daily Beast
  4. An earlier blog. Projected “doctor shortage” driven by new health law.
  5. An earlier blog. What percent of our MDs know how to promote health?
  6. An earlier blog. Medical doctors of the future
  7. An earlier blog. Finding an MD that appreciates plant-based nutrition

Having trouble finding a doctor who knows how to help you promote health, avoid or reverse chronic disease, I recommend that you take a look at my blog (#7 above) on that topic. Soon there will be many more but, for now, they are few and far between. In the meantime, you’ll be amazed at what you can do on your own.

Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from Amazon.com

Want to find out how healthy your family is eating? Take our free 4Leaf Diagnostic Survey. It takes less than five minutes and you can score it yourself. After taking the survey, please give me your feedback as it will be helpful in the development of our future 4Leaf app for smartphones. Send feedback to jmorrishicks@me.com

International. We’re now reaching people in over 100 countries. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter or get daily blog notices by “following” us in the top of the right-hand column. For occasional updates, join our periodic mailing list.

To order more of my favorite books—visit our online BookStore now

J. Morris Hicks, working daily to promote health, hope and harmony on planet Earth.

For help in your own quest to take charge of your health, you might find some useful information at our 4Leaf page or some great recipes at Lisa’s 4Leaf Kitchen.

Got a question? Let me hear from you at jmorrishicks@me.com. Or give me a call on my cell at 917-399-9700.

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Blogging daily at hpjmh.com…from the seaside village of Stonington, Connecticut – Be well and have a great day.

—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
This entry was posted in M.D.s---Health-Promoting, Medical Experts. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to High rates of “burnout” and suicide in the medical profession

  1. Denise says:

    I’m an RN and can totally understand this feeling of burnout. I am SO tired of dealing with sick people, in a system that doesn’t promote health. I tried to get my employer interested in plant based nutrition, and drew a complete blank. Of course, nurses receive next to no nutritional training, and the dieticians I see at work do not model health.

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