Health & Medicine

Sutter, Kaiser and other providers work to fight ‘eye-opening’ physician burnout levels

In recent years, the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society has turned its focus to caring for caregivers.

The medical society, one of the oldest medical societies in the west, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, is attempting to curb the effects of physician burnout through its Joy of Medicine program.

The program is a multi-disciplinary approach to address burnout by encouraging wellness and resiliency among physicians in the region. It was designed with input from all of the major medical groups in town, including UC Davis, Sutter Health, Mercy Medical Group, Kaiser Permanente and solo-practice physicians.

“At the end of the day, if a doc is burned out, somebody is not going to have a good experience,” said Aileen Wetzel, the CEO and executive director of the Sacramento medical society. “If Sutter and Dignity and UC Davis and Kaiser were to all come together and focus on systemic changes, we could really have huge momentum here in the Sacramento region.”

Wetzel said burnout among physicians has been an issue of concern for at least the past few decades, but it has increased in severity in recent years.

“I would say in the past four years it’s reached really untenable levels,” Wetzel said. “You look at any national survey and over 50 percent of the doctors surveyed out of anywhere are experiencing levels of burnout. We were seeing that with our physicians, but we also saw potential.”

According to medical publication Medscape’s 2018 national physician burnout report, 42 percent of physicians surveyed reported feeling burned out, traditionally defined by feelings of exhaustion, neglect and a lack of control. In 2015, the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported burnout rates ranging from 30 to 65 percent across various specialties.

The medical society, which represents over 3,600 physicians in El Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties, is actively engaged in a variety of efforts to curb the effects of burnout on physicians in the region.

Efforts include offering physicians free visits with a licensed psychologist or life coach, organizing a number of physician peer groups, programming and social events, physician gratitude pop-ups, recruiting physicians to donate medical services to uninsured and undocumented populations, and an annual summit which will take place for the second time next month.

According to Wetzel, other parts of the country have begun to model their programs after the medical society’s efforts.

Folsom solo practice OB-GYN Dr. Ruth Haskins, who also serves as the chair of the five-person Physician Wellness Committee at Dignity Health Mercy Hospital of Folsom, is involved in the medical society’s physician peer group in El Dorado Hills.

At a recent El Dorado Hills peer group meeting, about a dozen physicians — including from Kaiser and UC Davis — began an intense discussion about planning a pregnancy and the guilt of taking time off.

“To be able to see life from a different angle has been eye-opening for all of us,” Haskins said.

The medical society hoped to introduce a new, varied approach to curbing burnout, with a focus on networking among providers, help on an individual and systemic change.

“Several of the medical groups in the region … have very robust physician wellness programs,” Wetzel said. “We built our program after interviewing all of them because we didn’t want to copy what they were doing. Everything that we’re doing is brand-new to the community.”

The medical society has raised enough funds to be able to provide physicians living or practicing in Sacramento, El Dorado, Yolo or Placer counties with six lifetime visits with a licensed psychologist or life coach. Eighty sessions have been held over the past eight months, according to Lindsay Coate, the society’s director of programs.

The visits are about resiliency, “working on getting things back in line with finding joy in the practice of medicine,” Wetzel explained.

And the society has also recently launched a community-wide physician burnout survey, the first survey of its kind for the Sacramento region.

“We didn’t really need to survey physicians to find out if they’re burned out, we know they are,” Wetzel said. “The survey focuses on suggestions for systemic change. A lot of times it’s about electronic health records taking up four hours of their day.”

When Haskins ran for president of the California Medical Association in 2015, she decided to run her campaign on a message that was both engaging and realistic. The motto she decided on was: “Renew the passion, restore the value.”

“Renewing the passion meant doing everything I could to reduce physician burnout as an individual,” Haskins explained. “And then restoring the value meant I would have a focus in everything I did … toward getting physician remuneration elevated to a point where physicians feel valued.”

The motto resonated with people — Haskins is the association’s previous president. And though she says she felt her time in the position was a success, physician burnout is still an issue.

The solo-practice OB-GYN said although there are different reasons for burnout among self-employed physicians vs. employed physicians, the burnout is still the same. And Medscape’s 2018 findings support it: Self-employed and employed physicians report the exact same level of burnout.

Haskins said she loves her job and “would pay to do it,” but she’s experienced the effects of burnout firsthand. Last February, Haskins had suicidal ideations, she said.

“Like a typical physician, I denied it,” she said. “I didn’t seek out professional care. There was just one bad night, and then I turned it around.”

Haskins has spent the last three years teaching others about tools to combat burnout, but that hasn’t made her immune.

“I wore a key around my neck that said, ‘You are the key to your own success,’ I said all my affirmations, I listened to my favorite music, I meditated, I tried yoga, I did a little of everything on the stress mediation.,” she said. “I recognized the importance of all the things I’m preaching and took them all into effect. I needed to regroup, and I was able to pull that from inside.”

Medscape’s 2018 study reports 15 percent of physicians are experiencing depression. Less than half of all physicians surveyed said they had received mental health care, were currently receiving it or planned to receive it.

Dr. John Chuck is the regional chairman of the Physician Health and Wellness Leaders Group for about 9,000 physicians in Northern California and also serves on the medical society’s Joy of Medicine task force.

Chuck, a Kaiser family physician, proudly shares a photo of himself with his therapist, Marissa Pierce.

“By making my counseling relationship public, (I) try to help break down the stigma associated with seeking help from a therapist,” he said. “Physicians are afraid that if they are seen as less than perfect, they will be deemed unworthy to heal others. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

This September, the society will hold its second Joy of Medicine Summit, aimed at equipping physicians with tools to manage their stress levels and providing a chance for local providers to meet and learn from each other.

Around 200 physicians attended last year’s summit, and about 240 will be at this year’s summit. The event will focus on what can be done at both an individual and systemic level to effectively decrease burnout.

“What I’m excited about is giving physicians the opportunity of collegiality,” Wetzel said.

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