Combating Stress and Burnout in Surgical Practice: A Review

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Department of Surgery, 1515 Orleans St. Cancer Research Building II, Room 507, Baltimore, MD 21231, USA.
Advances in Surgery 09/2010; 44(1):29-47. DOI: 10.1016/j.yasu.2010.05.018
Source: PubMed


The practice of surgery offers the potential for tremendous personal and professional satisfaction. Few careers provide the opportunity to have such a profound effect on the lives of others and to derive meaning from work. Surgeons choose this arduous task to change the lives of individuals facing serious health problems, to experience the joy of facilitating healing, and to help support those patients for whom medicine does not yet have curative treatments. Despite its virtues, a career in surgery brings with it significant challenges, which can lead to substantial personal distress for the individual surgeons and their family. By identifying the priorities of their personal and professional life, surgeons can identify values, choose the optimal practice type, manage the stressors unique to that career path, determine the optimal personal work-life balance, and nurture their personal wellness. Being proactive is better than reacting to burnout after it has damaged one's professional life or personal wellness. Studies like the ACS survey can benefit surgeons going through a personal crisis by helping them to know that they are not alone and that many of their colleagues face similar issues. It is important that surgeons do not make the mistake of thinking: "I must not be tough enough," or "no one could possibly experience what I am going through." The available evidence suggests that those surgeons most dedicated to their profession and their patient may very well be most susceptible to burnout. Silence on career distress, as a strategy, simply does not work among professionals whose careers, well-being, and level of patient care may be in jeopardy. Additional research in these areas is needed to elucidate evidence-based interventions to address physician distress at both the individual and organizational level to benefit the individual surgeon and the patient they care for. Surgeons must also be able to recognize how and when their personal distress affects the quality of care they provide (both in the delivery of care and in the emotional support of patients and their families). There is no single formula for achieving a satisfying career in surgery. All surgeons deal with stressful times in their personal and professional life and must cultivate habits of personal renewal, emotional self-awareness, connection with colleagues, adequate support systems, and the ability to find meaning in work to combat these challenges. As surgeons, we also need to set an example of good health to our patients and future generations of surgeons. To provide the best care for our patients, we need to be alert, interested in our work, and ready to provide for our patient's needs. Maintaining these values and healthy habits is the work of a lifetime.

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