A Philosophical Look (With Practical Strategies) to Avoid Burnout

December 20, 2017

Experts at RSNA 2017 advise radiologists on avoiding burnout.

You wouldn’t expect to see a PowerPoint presentation at RSNA filled with slides about Soren Kierkegaard, Vincent Van Gogh, and Immanuel Kant.

But that’s what attendees were treated to during the session “Why Do Radiologists Burn Out, and What Can We Do About It?” In the session, experts shared tactics for avoiding burnout and shed light on the deeper meaning behind the feeling that many radiologists face.

Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, from Indiana University, based his presentation on a mix of philosophy, art, and literature. Harkening back to Kierkegaard (a Danish philosopher), he said radiologists can’t live for “self” or for “others,” but to live to make their work feel “transcendent.”

“If you live for yourself, you’re setting yourself up for a life of boredom,” Gunderman said. “You’ll be plagued by an inner sense of emptiness. As long as you think the newest MRI machine will bring you fulfillment, the longer your life will be on hold.”

The feeling of “transcendence” can be loosely described as working “beyond yourself.” He showed Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” to illustrate what the word meant. He urged radiologists to see themselves as people who “exist in eternity.”

“Know how small you are,” Gunderman said. “All the equipment, your department, the profession - it’s not about you. It’s something that was here before you got on the scene and will exist long after you’re gone.”

During her presentation, Cheri Canon, MD, from the University of Alabama School of Medicine, said that the nature of being a doctor can lead to burnout.

“Our persona puts us at greater risk,” Canon said. “We are not forgiving toward ourselves. We drive ourselves harder than other people. We’re not good at rapid change or ambiguity. We don’t know how to set boundaries. We forget how to relax and unwind. We’re against the idea of therapy.”

She also clarified that eating right, getting eight hours of sleep, and exercising isn’t enough to avoid burnout. There are a lot of factors within the hospital setting that contribute to burnout, such as: payment models, malpractice issues, and the overall model of health care delivery.

She also shared a few quick tips from physicians who don’t suffer from burnout. They put an emphasis on:

• Patient relationships

• Self-reflection

• Leisure activities

• Contact with colleagues

• Intimate relationships with family and friends

David Fessell, MD, at Michigan Medicine, also gave a few examples of how to avoid burnout. He’s a believer in the quote “you have to take care to give care.”

“What did you like doing as a kid?” Fessell asked. “Did you like swimming, playing chess, or painting? See if you can get back to doing what you love, outside of work. Make room for date nights with your spouse, walking, and exercising.”

A few other tips he told attendees to avoid burnout:

• Take deep breaths

• Try meditation/prayer

• Reframe “negative” situations

• Use humor and laughter as coping strategies