Physician Scott Stringfield remembers coming home from work, sitting down in his recliner and staring blankly at the television. His 18-month-old daughter would crawl around the chair, trying to get his attention, but he had nothing to give.
At the time, he hated Sundays, dreaded the end of the weekend.
When he showed up to work in the morning, medicine felt like a chore rather than a joy, even though he had always enjoyed being a physician.
“You’ve got highly disciplined, hardworking, some would say somewhat obsessive-compulsive individuals who really care for people, and you take that combination and you put it into an environment where there’s unlimited overwork and constant change and knowledge and information that it makes it really, really difficult,” Stringfield said.
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Today, Stringfield is in a different job and no longer feels burned out.
But his experience of exhaustion and dreading work is hardly unique.
A Medscape lifestyle report released in 2016 suggested that burnout had reached a “critical level” among physicians.
And patients should care: One Mayo Clinic survey reported in 2010 that major medical errors reported by surgeons were “strongly related to a surgeon’s degree of burnout.”
The physicians most prone to burnout (55 percent of them) work in critical care, urology and emergency medicine. Those with the least burnout work in psychiatry and mental health, 40 percent.
A 2015 study published by Mayo Clinic reported that more than half of U.S. physicians are experiencing professional burnout, a number that rose between 2011 and 2014.
Stringfield said physicians are usually disciplined and hardworking people in an environment with “unlimited overwork.”
He first became burned out while working in private practice in the small town of Lyons, where he was one of three or five physicians covering a hospital, emergency room and clinic.
At lunch, he was constantly paged and called. When he tried to limit his practice, work bled over into the emergency room, where he had to deal with it anyway.
Eventually, his mentor gave him a book called “Margin” by Richard Swenson, which says people live at the maximum of what they can handle.
Reading the book diagnosed Stringfield’s problem and demanded change, he said.
Made some changes
Eventually, Stringfield took his current job on the faculty with Via Christi Family Medicine.
When he started the job, he asked whether he could be three-quarter time for a few months.
“I realized I didn’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire,” he said.
Soon he was getting to know his wife and children again, investing in relationships and hobbies.
About 17 years later, he finally moved to full time.
While working part time, he often received weird looks when he showed up on the playground during work hours with his children, but it was well worth it, he said.
On his office wall, alongside awards and his diplomas, he has a letter his children wrote him in 1998, four years after he left private practice. In it, his children wrote things they like about him.
His son Stephen wrote: “He stays home.” Another son, Eric, wrote: “I like him staying home with me.”
“That’s my greatest award,” Stringfield said, pointing to the letter.
Not everyone can leave private practice and start a new job, but the key is acknowledging the burnout and investing in the things you want to do in terms of family and personal life, Stringfield said.
“When I started 35 years ago in medicine school, the thought was you give your life to medicine, you burn your life out for the sake of your patients,” Stringfield said. “I’m telling you, physicians are good at that.”
Physicians are more than twice as likely as the general population to commit suicide, according to the Southern Medical Journal, with most studies saying the overall rate is between 28 and 40 per 100,000.
Dike Drummond, a Seattle-based physician, will visit Wichita to speak about physician burnout at the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians annual meeting in June.
He experienced burnout in 1999 and 2010 and eventually became a coach to other doctors experiencing burnout.
In that role, he tells doctors that they shouldn’t focus their entire life around patients and their practice.
“Typically, it’s having a conversation with a doctor about what they don’t like about their current situation, helping them figure out what they would like and then helping them walk in that direction,” Drummond said.