• A Dung Beetle’s Legacy

    May 16, 2024

    By Margot Savoy, M.D., M.P.H., FAAFP
    AAFP Senior Vice President of Education, Inclusiveness and Physician Well-being

    This is Fred.

    Well, I named him Fred in my mind, at least. In February, my parents and I went on a great migration safari in Tanzania, and I did something I never do — disconnect and focus on enjoying life outside of work. For me that meant leaning into a favorite hobby and picking up my camera to document our trip. The day before I took this photo of Fred, I mentioned in passing to our safari tour guide that I had seen a pretty black bug. The next day while driving across the Serengeti, our guide stopped and pointed out Fred. He began telling us all about dung beetles and how they are a critical part of the ecosystem, when another safari vehicle drove by and ended Fred’s life. One minute Fred was here, and then suddenly he was just ... gone.

    I’m not quite sure why this little guy made such an impact on me in the moment, but I found myself determined to make sure that his story didn’t end with him working all that time to just get squished in anonymity. 

    Dung beetle rolling dung ball across grass

    I encountered Fred the dung beetle during a trip to Tanzania. It didn’t occur to me until after I returned home that Fred and I have a lot in common. 

    Here is a brief snippet of what I learned about dung beetles: 

    • Dung beetles, also known as scarabs, are everywhere. You can find them on every continent except Antarctica. 
    • They are both highly regarded AND the butt of endless jokes. Ancient Egyptians linked them to Khepri, the Egyptian god of the rising sun, and thought they kept the earth rotating. Modern scientists use them to solve agricultural issues. For example, by collecting and burying dung, they clean, fertilize and aerate fields. But most people nowadays just make “poopy” job jokes about them.
    • They subspecialize. They can be rollers, tunnelers and dwellers. 
    • They work really hard and do good that serves the whole ecosystem. They can move dung balls weighing up to 50 times their own weight and bury a volume of dung 250 times their own mass in one night — all while loosening and nourishing the soil and helping control fly populations, thus preventing disease/illness. 

    When I returned home from vacation, I jumped back into work, starting with developing the slides for my spring presentations, including an opening keynote for the AAFP Physician Health and Well-being Conference. And then it happened. I realized Fred is me! Family physicians are the dung beetles of medicine! 

    Family physicians are everywhere, and some of us subspecialize. Family docs work really hard. It certainly feels like we do 50 times our weight in paperwork and 250 times our own mass in office notes in one night. While the work we do may sometimes feel “poopy,” the reality is that we are nourishing our communities while preventing disease and illness. (Never miss an opportunity to remind people that your existence increases life expectancy. If they don’t believe you, point them to this 2019 article.) 

    The thing is that just like Fred, while we have our heads down doing the work, the world can run over us. That can feel like burnout, moral injury, or even physical and mental health issues. Fortunately, we have allies, resources, tools and solutions that can help us learn together, connect with one another and advocate effectively for our needs.  

    The 350 folks who were able to attend the Physician Health and Well-being Conference last week in Scottsdale got the opportunity to experience first-hand that the AAFP approach to physician well-being is more than just yoga and deep breathing. Engaging with one another around some powerful emotional, mental and behavioral approaches to well-being was certainly on the agenda. Grappling with our grief, acknowledging the impact of microaggressions and finding practical ways to center our needs remain practical and important tools for each of us to be able to access when needed. At the same time, we need to know how to drive corporate physician wellness strategies, be able to tell our own stories and identify potential solutions we can implement to improve the systems in which we are embedded.  

    Being there at the conference was amazing. You should go ahead and save the date now for 2025. We will be hosting the Physician Health & Well-being Conference in Hilton Head, S.C., on March 24–26. We also have an incredible continuing medical education library with on-demand coaching and courses available to you anytime, anywhere. If you prefer practical hands-on learning with a cohort of like-minded peers, there is still time to apply for Leading Physician Well-being, our 10-month certificate program that teaches participants to lead change and champion well-being. Stay tuned for a new on-demand activity from our Resident Well-being and Burnout Prevention Project ECHO set to launch in July, and in August, look for a new train-the-trainer opportunity from our Family Medicine Interest Group Well-being Champion Program, which trains medical students to facilitate well-being sessions for their peers.

    From blogs like this one to podcasts like Inside Family Medicine, a new offering from AAFP, there are so many ways for family physicians to listen to one another and be heard. (Check out this great listen from an interview with Dr. Mark Greenawald on physician wellness.) When I decided to share Fred’s story, I simply wanted to make sure he was remembered. What I didn’t anticipate was that sharing Fred’s story with my colleagues would encourage family docs to share their stories with me. Each story has been meaningful, impactful and a unique gift. Let’s keep Fred’s legacy going! Feel free to share your story in the comments below. 


    The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.