May 11, 2016

To fight burnout, hospitals have a new role model: Navy SEALs

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 28, 2020.

To build resiliency among staff, some hospitals are turning to an unlikely source of inspiration: the military, Lucette Lagnado reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Learn more: The 4 ways you can fight clinician burnout

According to a recent Mayo Clinic survey, 54 percent of doctors show at least one symptom of burnout, a marked increase from recent years. Burned-out doctors are "impaired," says Mayo Clinic President and CEO John Noseworthy. "They're at risk for increased medical errors, turnover, and suicide. They are at risk for decreased professionalism, patient satisfaction, and productivity."

Learning from struggle

Emotionally trying circumstances come with any job in medicine, says Jessica Lloyd, a pediatrician at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA.

"I love this job but it is hard," Lloyd says. "Maybe most of us don’t cry in front of patients. I certainly do," she says. "And a lot of us do cry in the conference rooms."

To fight back against physician burnout, Lloyd partnered with Brenda Bursch, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, to design Mattel Children's Pediatric Residency Resilience Training Program. The four-month program offered to residents is inspired by a program developed by the Department of Defense called Families Overcoming Under Stress.

Bursch explains that the program's military roots can help residents feel more comfortable with discussing and dealing with their emotions. According to Lagnado, Bursch during the training sessions "flashed slides of Navy SEALs to the residents to evoke a role model of another group that works in tough conditions."

Valuable skills

Patricia Lester, a professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center who helped create the Focus system, says the goal isn't to remove the stress of trauma and loss but to "help professionals develop skills to manage those experiences more effectively."

Residents in the program learn skills such as taking time to compose themselves when their emotions get too intense and looking for a "silver lining" in challenging situations. 

The techniques taught by the program have made a real difference for some residents. Arija Iverson, a third-year pediatrics resident, says the program taught her to "stop, step out of the room, collect yourself, and then go back" to handle difficult situations. But she admits that some traumas—such as the loss of a patient—are hard to cope with, explaining, "There is no emotional template to handle the death of a patient."

Other residents say the trainings have reaffirmed their desire to be doctors. Colin Parker says he was questioning whether he could handle the emotional stress—until he saw training videos of older doctors talking about their struggles to help patients, which gave him the perspective to see his medical training through. "At the end of the day, our work is important and beautiful," he says.

Another approach

Officials at Mattel Children's are not alone in thinking outside of the box to fight physician burnout. At Mount Sinai West in New York City, doctors, social workers, and other oncology staff meet for breakfast regularly to discuss recent medical events and participants' emotional reactions to them.

Oncologist Gabriel Sara, who leads the discussions, says they help the group come together and cope emotionally. "Instead of going home with a heavy heart, you come and share with the others, and realize they feel as you do," he explains (Lagnado, Wall Street Journal, 5/9). 

Learn more: The 4 ways you can fight clinician burnout

Physician burnout links to a 16% decrease in patient satisfaction, an 11% increase in reported medical errors, increased turnover, and early retirement. Act now to prevent further damage to your business, physicians, and patients.

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