Physician Well-Being

Be glad of life, because it gives you
the chance to love and to work,
to play and look up at the stars.

~ Henry Van Dyke

Medicine is a vocation, a calling for many. It offers opportunity to serve life, relieve suffering, and promote health and healing in our communities. For some, medical practice is even a spiritual path.

Medicine is also an exacting passage. Professional training can encourage physicians to hypertrophy their rational, "scientific" characteristics at the expense of more intuitive, "heartfelt" ones. Unfortunately, these suppressed or repressed aspects -- heart, soul, and connection to others -- are what strengthen us most during stress, and also allow us to be most present for others.

In recent years Medicine has advanced technologically, but has also become an arena of economic, ethical, and even spiritual crisis. Marketplace pressures force physicians to see more patients in less time, eroding their relationships with these patients and their families. Distracted by time constraints, incessant paperwork, and concern that nothing important be missed, physicians may do very meaningful work but not experience a sense of meaning themselves.

This disconnection from inner self can impact physicians' ability to practice the attentive medicine they intend. Also, struggling to bridge the chasm between organizational demands and their own professional values can lead to exhaustion, despair, and inability to summon empathy.

How to contend with these forces, so we both enjoy life and remain the healing presences we want to be?

Spending time with family and friends, practicing good self-care in terms of sleep, exercise, and nutrition, developing some kind of spiritual practice, and engaging in creative outlets are all necessary pieces of this puzzle.

But perhaps an even more important antidote to potential depression, numbness, and cynicism in today's medical whirlwind is remaining connected to one's inner purpose. Viktor Frankl MD wrote extensively about this in his best-selling book, Man's Search for Meaning . Fully connecting to this sense of meaning, however, requires one to be whole and present with what is happening.

Sometimes this requires patience, practice, and the mutual sharing of stories with others who have had similar experiences. Such trusted others can also remind us of our own inner richness if we temporarily forget.

One very useful venue for this kind of sharing is Dr. Rachel Remen's organization, Finding Meaning in Medicine, which can be accessed though Small community groups of 6-8 physicians can meet regularly, creating powerful support networks for generous listening and gentle inquiry along themes such as compassion, mystery, or whatever is "up" in the group at the moment.

Sharing in this way often reconnects physicians to the wondrous -- and healing -- human experiences they are having in their work and lives, hectic though these may be. Participants often note a renewed sense of wholeness and vitality, reverence for life, and strengthened commitment to Medicine.

Writing books, stories, poems, and even journals is another path to this reconnection. The works of physician authors such as David Hilfiker (Healing the Wounds: A Physician Looks at His Work, and others), Lewis Thomas (The Fragile Species, and many more), John Stone, Richard Selzer, Abraham Verghese, Rachel Remen, and Perri Klass are only a few examples.

All told, there are endless ways to connect with what is most lasting and real in us, as well as in our patients. In this connection, hope itself abides.

"Remember only this one thing," said Badger. "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves."
~ Crow and Weasel, by Barry Lopez