Dr. Meghan Valach on physician burnout and finding freedom

image of a hospital emergency department entrance to highlight the physician burnout crisis

Alarms have long been sounding about the looming physician burnout crisis facing healthcare and the nation at-large. The pandemic only intensified feelings of depression, depersonalization, lack of professional satisfaction, and emotional exhaustion. The American Medical Association recent reported on findings of a Mayo Clinic study that found during the Omicron wave of the pandemic, a 63% of physicians surveyed felt one or more of those symptoms of burnout, an all-time high.

We recently spoke Dr. Meghan Valach, Chief Medical Officer of Mobile Anesthesiologists, about the burnout crisis, the underlying causes, and how stepping out of the hospital might help some physicians regain control.

Can you give us some of the details and context behind the current staffing crisis the U.S. healthcare system is facing?

I think in healthcare, we’re seeing right now what people are referring to as “The Great Resign,” large numbers of healthcare providers walking away from taking care of patients. Forbes says that they anticipate 75% of healthcare workers are going to leave the healthcare field by 2025. That’s a mere three years from now, which would leave us in dire straits for healthcare in this country.

The pandemic has really brought a darker issue to the forefront, which is the mental health of physicians. We’re really seeing physician suicide in huge numbers. Especially, what we considering the frontline physicians, so emergency room doctors, anesthesiologists, intensivists.

What’s one of the biggest frustrations physicians are voicing around physician burnout?

It comes up a lot in conversations, but a lot of times, I think the frustration from physicians comes when encountering burnout, hospitals’ often make suggestions like, “Well, let’s have some meetings to help you figure out some coping mechanisms,” and things like that, and so actually, basically, putting it back on the physicians to fix themselves. “The problem is you, and you should fix yourself somehow. Do some more de-stressing activities,” instead of really doing what we do really well in healthcare.

When there’s a problem with patient care issues on a wide level, we look for the systems problem. We do a root cause analysis and figure out to fix it, but when it comes to problems with our healthcare providers, instead, they’re kind of saying, “Well, figure out how to fix yourself.”

What are examples of the systemic problems in healthcare that are causing or exacerbating physician burnout?

A lot of information’s coming out right now that part of the problem is that medical school teaches doctors, “Don’t be a whiner. Separate yourself from your feelings. Being a doctor and taking care of patients is such a privilege that you shouldn’t complain about whatever it is that that means.”

We want to have tools to help people combat things themselves, but we need to look at the system’s problem too. What sticks out to me a lot in the work about burnout is that physicians feel burned out when they feel like the things that are causing them the stress or making their life difficult are outside of their control. These are things like your work hours, your call responsibilities, your work colleagues. Also, when you feel like your medical training and your clinical care for a patient isn’t being respected anymore.

Are the stressors different in the various settings of healthcare?

To the point that I’ve talked about, when burnout seems to get the most out of control is when you don’t have control over the things that are the stressors, so when procedures get moved outside of the hospital into the surgical suite, you regain a lot of control over the schedule. Obviously, as the anesthesiologist, we’re always tied still to doing what the surgeon wants, but it’s still better. The surgeon’s not trying to squeeze in a case at 3:00 in the morning so that they can get to their clinic on time. They’re going to do it in their office at the time that works for them. That’s much better for us, so we’re not on call.

Also, [there is] definitely the benefit of being able to pass on savings to the patients, where they’re not paying high hospital fees, but we’re still recouping, actually, more of the professional fee than you would in a hospital. You’re not paying hospital overhead to get these procedures done, so even though it costs less for patients, more of the overall income from it is staying in the hands of doctors, so that makes you feel like you’re really in control of your decision of how much you’re going to work, how you’re going to do things.

How does this reduction in stress in the office-setting affect patients?   

You don’t have to then follow hospital protocols about the way certain cases will be scheduled or about when patients can get in. You can really do what you feel best for the patient, and based on the relationship that the proceduralist has with the patient, they can really arrange getting their procedure done in a more timely fashion, and at a location that’s easier for them.

It really gives physicians, again, the opportunity to feel that connection with their patient and have the reward of taking care of them. Instead of feeling like a cog in the hospital wheel, who’s just following the protocol, getting this done, you’re back to taking care of patients, which I think is something that physicians, ultimately, that’s the cure for burnout is finding that joy in the work that you do and remembering why what you’re doing has a positive impact on somebody else’s life.

Recent Posts

Retailers are Exiting Healthcare Part 1: What Drove Them Out?

Retail healthcare was poised to be a major disruptor. Unfortunately, in the past few months, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and Walmart have all exited clinic and primary care spaces. While their entrance was a controversial choice, the undercurrent was hopeful. The quintuple aim’s goals are, in part, to improve access to care and improve quality of...

Site of Service Transition Creates New Career Opportunities for Anesthesiologists

Despite how difficult change can be in healthcare, ASC and office-based surgery continues to explode. This site of service transition is creating new career opportunities for anesthesiologists, so much so that a whopping 81% of anesthesiologists are employed in outpatient settings. This means for anesthesiologists, CRNAs, and anesthesiology assistants, the routine of early mornings, rotating...