Addressing Burnout, Creatively

The Alliance of Independent Academic Medical Centers (AIAMC) National Initiative (NI) is a national and multiinstitutional collaborative focused on resident-led quality improvement projects in independent teaching hospitals. The most recently completed initiative, NI VI: Stimulating a Culture of Well-Being in the Clinical Learning Environment, launched in 2017 and focused on improving resident and physician wellness and well-being. Many participating hospitals took particular interest in identifying and finding solutions to burnout.

Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress… As the stress continues, [victims of burnout] begin to lose the interest and motivation that led [them] to take on a certain role in the first place.” Mayo Clinic suggests that working in a helping profession such as healthcare may make someone more likely to experience job burnout.burnout-2326686_960_720

In fact, studies show that physicians experience symptoms of burnout as early as medical school. Medical students may feel a low sense of accomplishment and experience exhaustion and even depersonalization, which can manifest in callousness toward and detachment from patients. A possible solution to the depersonalization aspect of burnout is empathy, the ability to connect with people and share their feelings.

In January 2020, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) published one interesting idea some medical students are using to try to boost empathy—medical improv classes. Medical improv uses the principles of improvisational theater to hone skills needed in medicine. Exercises can range from translating gibberish to communicating through eye contact alone.

“Perhaps one of the greatest powers of medical improv,” Sarah Mahoney wrote in her article for the AAMC, “is its ability to increase empathy. And that’s key, say experts, since studies show that medical training often erodes compassion for others.”

Burnout has no easy fix, but building empathic skills and reigniting compassion for one’s patients could be a step in the right direction.

“In a field plagued by burnout and depression,” said Mahoney, “genuine expression can also be a mental health booster. Improv is helpful in populations as diverse as Alzheimer’s patients, where it can teach new communication and coping skills, and at-risk youth, where it’s been shown to reduce anxiety. It makes sense that it’s good for doctors, too.”

The Ochsner Journal has served as the official publication of the AIAMC National Initiatives since 2015 and will publish an AIAMC supplement with summaries of all the projects focused on resident and physician wellness and well-being in spring 2020. In addition, the Journal welcomes articles that address issues such as resident, medical student, and staff burnout as well as other quality improvement articles.