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AAMC Leader Looks for Solutions to Physician Burnout

If you’re a physician suffering from burnout, you can’t yoga yourself out of it. And until we stop blaming the victims and start addressing the real problem – a broken system – nothing is going to get better.

So said Darrell Kirch, M.D., — a psychiatrist by training who is the president and CEO of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C. – during a visit to Northeast Ohio Medical University Thursday, April 25. The group he was speaking to when he made those comments was gathered to hear his thoughts about student mental health.

As a former dean at two medical schools, Dr. Kirch has seen a whole confluence of factors contribute to burnout among students and physicians. Stress begins building with high-stakes tests like the U.S. medical licensing exams known as Step 1 and 2; escalates with pressure to treat a high volume of patients; and is maintained or escalated each day by that faceless taskmaster, the electronic medical record.

Back in the day, physicians would gather to relax and commiserate in doctor’s lounges in hospitals, and they would belong to medical societies. Time pressures have reduced those face-to-face gatherings, which gave physicians a chance to process their high-stakes work experiences and bond with colleagues who understood their world. And physicians are paying a price.

“Burnout is the physician’s version of the opioid epidemic,” Dr. Kirch told the group – many of whom were members (including student representatives) of the University’s Mental Health Committee. They had gathered at Cook Alumni Hall to hear Dr. Kirch and discuss mental health topics with him during one of the several sessions the AAMC leader held during his daylong campus visit.

Fixing a broken system

“‘One robin does not a spring make.’ That’s what my grandmother used to say,” said Dr. Kirch.

At the same time, he’s not one to give up on de-stigmatizing burnout and associated mental health conditions so as to make practicing medicine a healthier career. After all, as he noted to the group, 25 years ago, hospitals didn’t have the chief quality officers that have become a best practice. And now, chief well-being officers are also being appointed.

So, Dr. Kirch took some first steps. He went to the National Academy of Medicine to propose a research project that could provide a road map toward a better way.

There, he found support. For two years, a 60-member collaboration has been in place, “to identify evidence-based strategies to improve clinician well-being at both the individual and system levels.” Dr. Kirch serves as a co-chair of the collaborative.

To read about the work being done, visit the National Academy of Medicine page devoted to the Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience.