May 2002 Table of Contents

Reconnecting With the Joy of Medicine



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What can you do when the passion for serving others comes at too high a personal price?

Fam Pract Manag. 2002 May;9(5):84.

If you’re anything like most physicians, you’ve willingly sacrificed yourself physically and emotionally for your profession. Training yourself to disconnect from your personal needs probably started in medical school and continues to a certain extent today. But eventually, ignoring your personal needs will contribute to burnout.

Our experience has shown that the loss of passion for medicine often occurs just as physicians arrive at the pinnacle of their technical and clinical competence.1 Upon reaching this point, many begin to wonder, “Is this all there is?” Their years of sacrifice have not paid off in personal or professional satisfaction.

If you find yourself identifying with these feelings of burnout, here are several things you can do to recover the meaning and joy in medicine.

Protect your passion

If you find that you’re getting less joy, satisfaction or fulfillment from caring for patients, consider it a warning sign that you’re burning out. Another sign is the rage some physicians feel as a result of managed care, government regulations and diminished incomes. Some degree of resentment is certainly justified, but consider the personal cost of carrying around that anger. Is it really worth it? To protect your passion, you must get away from your own negativity. The first step is to stop complaining and to give up what gives you no pleasure. Only after allowing negative feelings to dissipate will you have room for more positive feelings toward your profession.

Get out of the grind

Some physicians are unknowingly reluctant to give negativity up because they don’t know what to put in its place. We recommend substituting self-compassion for negativity. In his book Original Blessing, Matthew Fox describes the journey toward self-compassion as an experience of emptying, that is, letting go of one’s persona and ego.2 The first step toward treating yourself with compassion is to get out of the everyday grind and rediscover your personal needs. To do this, spend a few hours or a day, if possible, on a personal retreat. It may be a retreat into nature, music or non-clinical literature – whatever you prefer. While there, listen to your “inner voice” and do some self-reflection. It will help you rediscover what gives you joy.

Explore meaning

Everyone can benefit from exploring the meaning of their life’s work. This meaning is usually as close to you as the nose on your face, but it can be difficult to see. Reconnecting with the joy of practicing medicine requires you to look through the rear-view mirror of your life. Reflect on the key events in your life from your early years to the present. Think specifically about what you have achieved, how you did it and how you felt about your achievements. Try to extract the commonalities from these experiences. This will almost always uncover your vocational passion.

If you want more direction on this journey, an excellent resource is Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, PhD. The authors developed 34 individual “talent” themes based on 25 years of Gallup Corporation research and more than two million interviews.

According to the authors, every individual naturally embraces several of these talent themes. To add value to their life’s work, people must identify their talents and then determine how best to use them in their careers.

Another way to reconnect with the essential values of medicine and recover meaning is simply to talk with other physicians about issues you’re facing. One example of this is the “Finding Meaning in Medicine” program (www.commonweal.org/outreach.html), in which a physician invites several of his or her colleagues to meet one evening a month in a professional-neutral setting to discuss a medically related topic, such as compassion, service or mistakes. Such discussions can help physicians feel less isolated and less likely to experience burnout.

Maintaining personal and professional balance over time is difficult because of the external pressures physicians face. As you rediscover who you are and the meaning in your work, your joy and passion for serving others will return once again and become an energizing force.

Dr. Pendergrast is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in private practice in Atlanta. Jim Henry is the co-author of two books, The Soul of the Physician and Reclaiming Soul in Health Care.

Conflicts of interest: none reported.

Send comments to fpmedit@aafp.org.

1. Henry LG, Henry JD. The Soul of the Physician. Chicago: AMA Press;2002.

2. Fox M. Original Blessing. Santa Fe, N.M.: Bear & Co.; 1984.

Copyright © 2002 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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