How one doc fought back against physician burnout

Too many well-meaning providers are "yessing" themselves into serious overwork, putting their health and their patients' health at risk, says one doctor who learned that the hard way – and did something to fix it.
By Mike Miliard
05:22 PM

Thomas Jenike, MD, at the Cleveland Clinic and HIMSS Patient Experience Summit on Tuesday

CLEVELAND – Like most physicians, Thomas Jenike, MD, began practicing medicine because he cared deeply about other human beings and wanted to help them.

So, for instance, even though it's above and beyond the typical call of duty, it makes sense that Jenike cared enough about his patients to give them all his cell phone number and tell them to call whenever they need him.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," said Jenike with a wry laugh at the Cleveland Clinic and HIMSS Patient Experience Summit on Tuesday.

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For that matter, it's only natural that Jenike – who now serves as chief human experience officer at North Carolina-based Novant Health – was always happy to say yes whenever his colleagues would ask him to take on this extra task or join that new committee.

The challenge, as all too many physicians know, is that "if you just show up and say yes, your plate starts to fill up," he said.

"I has basically 'yessed' myself into a 50 percent clinical job and 50 percent physician administrative leadership role."

But with 4,000 people in his family practice panel, the reality felt more like "two full-time jobs," said Jenike. "The physics were just against me."

To the casual observer, he had a good life: good job, good relationship with his patients, good standard of living.

But "it didn't feel so good to be in my life," Jenike explained. He'd wear a happy face with his patients and colleagues, but at home that mask would sometimes slip.

When he woke up in the morning, he wasn't excited to go to work like he was when he first began practicing.

"I felt pressure," he said. "And worry: Who am I going to let down. What am I going to drop today because I have too many balls in they air. Who might I hurt."

Doctors practice medicine because they care. But for the overworked clinician, "as much as you care, the sacrifice in your life relationships is just too big a cost," said Janike.

So he decided to do something about it. In 2013, he decided to tackle physician burnout head-on, taking something of an "executive coaching" approach to the problem. In the years since, more than 800 docs and 2,000-plus other healthcare pros have taken part in the three-day workshops he leads.

The focus is on bolstering providers' resiliency and wellness, helping them keep their work in perspective and manage in this overwhelming healthcare environment.

"Our program is basically a leadership program on leading your life," said Jenike.

Its two main goals are simple, he said: 1) enable participants to have a "significant enhancement of their life," a breakthrough that helps them improve their lived experience; and 2) to help them be their best selves, ensuring that "the experience people have of you" – whether personal or professional" – is optimal.

"You are not imagining that it is really hard to practice medicine these days," said Jenike. Physicians are overscheduled and overstretched, the burdens of clinical documentation are very real and too often care is mediated by an ungainly computer screen.

But EHRs are "not going away." (Some physicians still think they can buck the trend, but "good luck with that approach," he said.)

Those "external forces" are challenging, said Jenike, but much of physician burnout comes from personal characteristics. "Take a look at the hands on the wheel.

Too much "yessing," too much perfectionism might be seriously exacerbating existing challenges, he said, "taking something that's really, really hard and making it impossible to sustain by adding our own stuff to it."

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
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