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In Your Head | Jul/Aug '16

How Do You Avoid Burnout?

Grace Sun, MD

Grace Sun, MD

One Way to Combat Burnout … Work More?

I walked out from the exam room to call the first patient. A quick scan of the full waiting room confirmed that it would be a very, very long day. Today, however, was different. I didn’t sigh. Instead, I smiled.

My first patient was led in by her grandson. She was a fragile 62-year-old woman who looked decades older than her stated age. Her brightly colored dress contrasted brilliantly against her dark skin. Barefoot, she shuffled in hesitantly, aided by her 11-year-old grandson and a walking stick made from long tree branch. But it wasn’t her striking appearance that caught my attention. What ultimately struck me as I tried to meet her gaze were her two white cataracts.

We were in Tanzania. Our team had traveled more than 20 hours on multiple planes to reach a city that most of us had never heard of. There was only one ophthalmologist trying to serve a community of 2.5 million people. By week’s end, our team had trained six members of the local ophthalmology team, screened more than 2,000 patients, and operated on nearly 300 eyes, including those of the grandmother I had seen on our first day. Within 24 hours of seeing us, she was able to meet my gaze now with a huge smile. Her vision had improved so much that she was no longer blind, and her grandson could again attend school, freed from the responsibility of being her caretaker during the day.

As I boarded the plane for the 23-hour journey back to New York City, I still had on that same smile. I had left home with a sense of dread—I was exhausted from the unrelenting workweeks and wondered why I had said yes to this project. Instead, I was returning to New York with a newfound energy. My sense of passion and purpose were reignited, my compass reset.

In recent years, I’ve traveled to Tanzania nearly a dozen times, trying to bring to fruition our project of strengthening eye care in that country. And every time, even when traveling at the height of the busiest times in my practice, I have never failed to come back rejuvenated, ready to tackle my work with renewed vigor.

It may seem paradoxical to suggest that an antidote to the fatigue, emptiness, and numbness of burnout that many of us physicians face is more work. However, volunteerism globally—or even in our own backyards—can allow us to step outside of our day-to-day stresses and recalibrate, and can nudge us to reconnect ourselves with the reason why many us became physicians in the first place.

But yes, in addition to all of that, you should really get some more sleep. 

Grace Sun, MD
  • Director, Ophthalmology Residency Program, and Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York
  • grs2003@med.cornell.edu
Melissa Toyos, MD

Melissa Toyos, MD

How do I avoid burnout? It’s an important question

A recent Huffington Post article reported that the physician burnout rate was greater than 50% and rising.1 For most doctors, the question is not if you will experience burnout, but when. Here’s my personal burnout avoidance program.

To help minimize the effects of everyday stressors, I’ve amassed a small armamentarium of spa equipment for my home. We’ve got (and regularly use) a home gym, an infrared sauna, and super deluxe massage chair—all of which can take the edge off a tough day. I make it a point to schedule brutally deep tissue massages at least once a quarter, and I learned in med school that long-distance running offsets my mental stressors. A few years ago I started a yoga habit that consistently makes me a calmer, more patient person.

On a larger scale, travelling helps me step out of my normal routine and better appreciate all of the opportunities that I’ve been given. My husband, Rolando Toyos, MD, understands all the stresses of practice and, happily, is a great listener. He gets all of the credit for reminding me to slow down and recharge, even when I still have items on my to-do list. But at the heart of my burnout prevention program is the fact that I am my own boss and have control over how I work. And, like most ophthalmologists I know, I still really, really love what I do.  

1. Fronek H. Doctors in the crosshairs. Huffington Post. April 5, 2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/physician-burnout/. Accessed August 12, 2016.

Melissa Toyos, MD
  • Partner, Toyos Clinic Nashville, Tennessee
  • mtoyos@toyosclinic.com

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