I Am More Than My Specialty: Physician Burnout and Individualism
By Erin Jospe, MD
Erin Jospe, MD is chief medical officer of Kyruus of Boston, MA.
While physician burnout is garnering more attention with a steady generation of articles and books both academic and lay, we have yet to see improvements despite our awareness of the problem. We have become facile at recognizing the symptoms of exhaustion, detachment, cynicism, and inefficiency as the hallmarks of burnout, but no better at treating the underlying causes.
Per Medscape, no specialty was spared an increase in self-reported burnout symptoms between 2013 and 2017,  and the prevalence is unsettling at almost 60 percent in some fields.  While there is no silver bullet for burnout, within their professional work environments, recognizing physicians as individuals and giving them the means to convey their unique areas of expertise to patients, fellow providers, and others within the health system can go a long way in paving a path to higher satisfaction and engagement.
We are equally aware of the downstream ramifications of physician burnout as we are of the symptoms, with repeated studies demonstrating the negative impact on patient safety, quality of care, and the patient experience. With the refocusing of the context of care upon the mission to improve patient lives, in 2007 the “Triple Aim” reminded us of the importance of how individual patients experience care. In the 10 years since, there has been a paradigm shift in respecting the individual patient as having unique needs and values that must be addressed to achieve better health.
Physician burnout directly undermines our ability to deliver on this promise and has worsened in the same 10 years. It was innovative to say we needed to acknowledge the humanity of our patients to deliver better care, to recognize the individual and not view them as interchangeable with every other patient. And yet by creating a delivery system that only recognizes the humanity of those needing care and not of the care providers, we sully the sacredness of that patient-provider relationship and create the same negative environment of disrespect that results in so much dissatisfaction among both providers and their patients.
Though we rightly strive to see and address the individual needs of the patient, there is a widespread sense that physicians themselves are interchangeable. This is no less disrespectful than perceiving patients as such. As a physician, I am far more than my specialty, as are my colleagues. Yes, I have an expertise, and with it comes an expectation of an established skill set and standards of care. But I have a style, manner, and experience that is my own. I have defined niches of interest and excellence that make me better suited to the needs of some patients.
When given no means, no vocabulary, no voice with which to articulate that which is unique to a physician, we do a disservice to the individual physician and to the community of patients and other providers who would seek them out. Our health systems and networks of physicians are growing exponentially larger, but with it, our awareness of individual contributors diminishes. We no longer have connections with one another as physicians and no insight as to where unique strengths and gifts might exist among us.
In the face of an exploding fund of medical knowledge, we cannot deny the necessity of understanding where unique expertise — and not just specialty — lives. It is hard to enough for physicians to acknowledge the deficiencies in our knowledge base. Providing no means by which to uncover who within our community might help only furthers a tendency toward emotional and mental exhaustion.
Addressing burnout at an individual physician level is often too little, too late. Resiliency is important, but in and of itself, resiliency does not change the environment for which it is necessary, and too often will be insufficient to treat or prevent burnout.
Instead, consider the systemic and holistic organizational contributions to the environment which are causal. Rather than address the individual’s propensity to burnout, address the individual. Allow them to be acknowledged and appreciated as uniquely individual contributors. Give them the means to indicate to their networks what their clinical areas of focus are beyond merely specialty / subspecialty. Provide them with teams aligned in their mission to act in concert as exceptional people in the care of exceptional people. Facilitate their understanding of the excellence that exists within the community of providers.
Failure to do so diminishes the joy and satisfaction of relational patient care by converting those interactions into the merely transactional. Though not a panacea for physician burnout, we need to address the anonymity of our providers if we are to do justice to the promise of prioritizing the patient experience.
 Medscape Lifestyle Report 2017
 AMA, “Report reveals severity of burnout by specialty,” Jan. 31, 2017.