12 December 2012

(Only) human

Chatting with some med students, a good question was raised: how do we, as doctors, deal with the emotional baggage we encounter in our profession? It's high stress, we see disturbing things, and sometimes we make mistakes that can result in harm to patients. The pressure and responsibility can be very hard to handle.

These stresses, if unmanaged or poorly managed, can carry severe consequences for physicians. Burnout is rampant among docs (and trainees, too). Doctors have high rates of divorce, substance abuse and have the highest suicide rate of any profession.

A normal day at my job is hard: I'm running nonstop for 8-12 hours, I'm constantly interrupted, I have patients making demands of my attention and empathy, I'm saturated with information and need to make rapid decision without adequate information, and I know that if I make an error or miss some important piece of information, the human, professional and financial consequences can be disastrous. It's a pressure cooker.

And that's a day where things go well. A bad day can be very bad indeed. Sometimes it's just the emotional strain of dealing with particularly difficult patients. Maybe you go through a run of giving out terrible diagnoses. Maybe you deal with the death of a child. Or a patient who pulls at your heartstrings in some unique and personal way. Maybe someone dies on you unexpectedly. Worse, maybe someone dies on you and you're not sure if it was your fault or not. Perhaps you know you made an error, and that you're going to have to face accountability for it.

These are the days that drive physicians over the edge. I've had them, and I remember them so vividly even years later. There was the one lady with a gallbladder attack on Thanksgiving, many years ago. She had classic signs and I saw gallstones on my bedside ultrasound. She crashed and died right in front of me from a ruptured thoraco-abdominal aortic aneurysm. Her abdominal aorta had looked normal on my scan; the aneurysm was in the chest and ruptured into the thorax, which is very unusual. That didn't make it any easier to go home and sleep that night.

So I guess my take on the question is not how do we deal with the psychological stress but how should we? I am not an expert, but here are my thoughts.

The first step, which most practicing professionals have already accomplished, is to learn what is called "professional detachment." This is an unnatural skill in which you must suppress your innate sympathy for the suffering experienced by a fellow human being, pain which you may be personally inflicting. The first time you stick someone with a needle, it's probably as traumatic for you as for the patient. More advanced applications involve you ignoring someone's pain or personal tragedy while trying to figure out the hidden life threat. This is a necessary skill if you are to function in the medical environment.

Another way to think of the same skill is to maintain a sense of distance. Remember, an older teaching physician once told me, the patient is the one with the disease. This helps you remember that the patient's condition is not your doing (usually) and their outcome, if negative, is the result of their disease and not necessarily a reflection on your care.

While this detachment is useful and necessary, it can be maladaptive if taken to extremes. First of all, as a physician you do need to express empathy and compassion. It's part of the job. But the emotional demands will be overwhelming if not governed in some fashion; we have limited capacity for caring. My solution is to dole out my compassion and empathy in measured doses, as appropriate to the case and my own mental state. This is not a license to be callous and uncaring in other cases, but rather to be polite, professional and reserved, emotionally.

Furthermore, you need to understand that the professional reserve does not equate to repression of emotion. You suppress it, in the moment, set it aside to get the job done, but that doesn't mean it never happened. For minor stuff it probably is okay to suppress it & forget it.  But the bad things — they won't go away on their own, but will fester and bubble up at the most inopportune moments. You need to take some time, when appropriate, to unpack the experience and re-live the emotions to deal with them. Maybe it will be just turning the case over in your head the next day. Maybe it needs to be more immediate. We've sent docs home after bad pediatric arrests when it was clear they were so upset they needed some time. It's essential, in any case, to explore the disturbing feelings so you can come to a resolution and move on.

Many institutions will have formal critical incident debriefings for the entire team, for particularly awful events. While this doesn't need to be performed formally for routine events, it's a good idea to informally debrief with a trusted partner, superior or mentor. Talk through the case, review the medicine and the science, review your actions and outcomes, and your emotional response to the situation. It is helpful to do this with someone you respect, so he or she can give you valuable feedback. This can be over coffee or a beer or three; possibly better that way.

There can be a lot of shame involved when there was a bad case, even when well-handled, but especially so when you know that you made an error or may have. A lot of docs like to bury these as deep as possible. But these in particular are helpful to talk about, and the more publicly the better. This is not easy, but can be invaluable. We instinctively shy away from openly talking about our mistakes, but when you do you will probably receive a lot of support from your colleagues, many of whom have done the same or understand that "there but for the grace of god go I." An additional benefit is that your mistakes may have been due to a system error or a cognitive bias and by reframing the discussion in an educational light, by seeking out the root causes, you can improve the quality of your own care and that of your partners.

Keep a sense of perspective, and try to stay positive. When the job is really getting you down, take a break, go out to the ambulance bay, take a few deep breaths and try to remember the big picture. We have a great job. It's a privilege and an honor to be allowed to care for patients. We can sometimes make a huge difference in people's lives. We have respect and status in society, and are quite well paid for it. Many people would give their right arm to be where you are. Yes, seeing the 10th drug seeker of your shift is a drag, but damn, it's still better than sitting at a desk and moving numbers from column A to column B.

Sublimation is a defense technique that is particularly valuable in the ER. It is a form of displacement where the negative feelings are transformed into something positive, or at least more-or-less acceptable. The most common form it takes is "gallows humor." Tragedy and comedy are deeply linked, and a morbid witticism can provide a lot of relief of the emotional tension that builds up in a clinical setting. Others may channel these feelings into art or literature. To each their own. If this is not your thing, find an outlet. I practice karate, and there's nothing like pounding the hell out of the heavy bag — or a white belt —after a bad day.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, when you know you screwed up, when you know there was an error that harmed or may have harmed a patient: forgive yourself. You are human, as are we all, and we make mistakes. Take the time to understand it, do your best to learn from it, and forgive yourself. Let go of it, file it away, and move on. If you don't or can't, self-doubt and self-hate will paralyze you and in the end it will sink you.

One last thing: if you are really having trouble, get professional help. If you're self-medicating, or if you are bringing work home to the point it's affecting your family, be humble and realize that doctors can benefit as much as (or more than) any other patient from psychological counseling and support. Many hospitals have a confidential Physician Assistance Program, staffed by professional counselors trained to deal with the issues doctors struggle with. I've seen doctors torpedo their careers with behavior and substance issues, and I've seen programs like these successfully rehabilitate physicians who were in a downward spiral. Check with your medical staff office and use the resources that they offer.


  1. thanks for the wonderful tips.

    your first sentence caught my attention right away. medical students. I bet it would be great to have a chat with you. The next great thing was all the tips given especially the professional reserve. I have to admit that I find it hard to learn the cases (now I just passed the third day in my NICU posting) as I often feel terrible for what the neonates are having. I believe all these are important in moving on in life. Thanks a lot again for the thought!

  2. Excellent post. I'm not a doctor, but an ER nurse and the information you gave can pertain to both. I appreciate your message.

  3. Hi, Mike I too am a ER or AED(uk) nurse as we call it. These comments are good and I too see the need to "unpack" your feelings at some point. Paediatric deaths are the hardest to cope with, but often the intensity of the whole AED drama takes sometime to come down from.
    I have horses and find myself mulling over things while I muck them out, groom them etc. Horses don't talk and this quiet time has been invaluable to me over the years in sorting out the important stuff that perhaps I do need to address and talk to another person about.
    As you say a resistance does actually build up and you deal with things more efficiently the more experienced you become.

  4. I prefer, "There, but for the grace of God, go I.", but your post is very timely and much appreciated. Thank you.

  5. From a medical student, thanks very much for writing this.

  6. For EM, work less shifts. Reduce your cost of living so you don't have to work as many shifts. Take time off to recharge your empathy and humor levels.

  7. Great post as are so many others. One thing I do is blog--not for the reader but for me, to remember and cherish this crazy life journey we're on. Be well.

  8. Just a nurse too of course, but I heartily second everything in this post.

    I think a physical activity is a key way to deal with stress, as is a mental activity that has nothing at all to do with work.

    Another helpful thing I've found is getting away. Taking a month or so every now and then and putting as many miles as possible between you and work.

    Family too. Having someone to go home too, even if they can never really understand (and who would want them to?), is a huge help.

  9. What a great post. Thanks for your time and thanks for sharing it with us

  10. This is awesome.

    While I don't work in medicine (work in retail for a very popular company) some of your lessons transfer very well.

    Sending this link to my Management team.

    Happy New Year!

  11. I'm an engineer, but besides lab and all experiment. I love to feel people thought, and doctor is one of those I'm really curious, especially how they deal with the mixed feelings when tries to cure people in different case. Myself, I fix machine, objective parts, I don't have to think too much in ethical feeling but only technical logic. But doctors are different, they fix people. I know most people won't really care how doctor feels because patient simply think it's doctor's job to fix their health as long as they pay for it. I, on another hand, always think from a person to another person, there should always be a lot of consideration.
    I really appreciate that you let your thought out in this post.

  12. From another medical student interested in EM, and from what I have experienced as a volunteer and
    as an intern, I absolutely appreciate this post.
    Even in medical school clinical training I have experienced some things that I just can't get out of my head. I can't imagine how much I will see when (fingers crossed) I am working full time.

  13. I want to personally appreciate your post. This is really amazing and great. I like the way of your writing and your thoughts. Kindly keep posting more amazing posts.
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