Finding the Cure for Provider Burnout with Compassion

by Arissa Viering, Remote Telescribe Implementations Manager

I have dedicated many years of my life to studying and teaching provider burnout and how scribes can help to fight it. However, I could not have done it without the help of my own teachers. Today, I present to you a mere glimpse into the knowledge that I have been given: 

A few months ago, I interviewed my greatest teacher – a pediatric emergency medicine physician who has greatly impacted the lives of those around him. Now, when I left that interview, I left in tears. Every single sentence he stated was so stunning and so true. His words gripped at me – they held me like an anchor for months to come as I upheld my new and challenging leadership role. It’s been difficult for me to even write this because I could teach about it for years…

I chose to interview this doctor because he was leaving his position at the emergency department for a teaching position at a nearby medical school. This medical school was beginning to teach a new type of medicine: compassion. 

Some people read emotions well while others don’t – this is a known fact. This physician is a very empathetic person. He was raised in a British household where empathy wasn’t a very good thing. “You were supposed to hide your emotions and have a stiff upper lip,” he stated. He was bad at that because he would feel emotions at such a deep level while watching movies or even listening to music. However, that was who he was – it was what helped to define him. So, he went to medical school because he wanted to use that empathy to be compassionate towards others. 

Now, he finds himself as a teacher, exiting the war zone of the emergency room to enter into a medical school that is trying so hard to teach both the ‘science’ and the ‘art’ of medicine. He believes this to be important because, when he went to medical school, the focus was geared towards “evidence-based medicine.” The ability to talk with patients in a kind or compassionate tone wasn’t the top priority – science was. However, with that focus on ‘evidence-based medicine,’ a tragedy occurred: the loss of soft skills and, with that, compassion. 

Make no mistake – showing compassion is not a matter of being a pushover. You can be both compassionate and assertive as a physician. No – compassion is about understanding that your patient is sitting on that table for reasons more than just a ‘Chief Complaint.’

“Right now, the big push in medicine is burnout. Our hospital did a huge survey and found that a lack of compassion leads to physician burnout faster.” That’s because solving a patient’s problems is as much of a high as anything else, but healthcare workers who can’t tap into that will get burnt out. It’s not always the EMR or technology that causes your problems as a physician. A lot of the time, it’s a matter of your approach to medicine – and, much more, life overall. 

This physician has worked so hard to teach others that he always says “If you haven’t learned something new today, you did something wrong” to all of his scribes and students. When he says this, he isn’t just talking about learning something medical – it can be anything. He says this because we live in a society where we are so used to the ability to quickly obtain knowledge that the initial impression of what we have observed is seen as enough. However, in the field of medicine, the initial impression is never enough! You have to work for knowledge and you have to learn more than what you initially observe. Our society is based a lot on how we maintain our image towards others and, because of that, we have lost the ability to maintain ourselves because we are not taking the time to learn about ourselves. To fight for knowledge is to learn more about who you are. Learning more about who you are will make you a better doctor and it will grant you the ability to show empathy at a deeper level. 

If you do not take care of yourself, you will find yourself in the same shoes as this physician’s colleague: “I have a classmate who suffers from depression and anxiety. Her burnout got so bad that she had to quit medicine for her own health because she had gotten so rabbit-holed she couldn’t get out. She was constantly helping others to the point that those around her became like leeches – sucking out every last drop. She realized it became too unhealthy for her to practice medicine and had to stop. Now, she is doing what she loves – hiking and yoga. She is happy”.

My final question to this physician was: Do you honestly think scribes help? 

“Being a physician and entering a patient’s room is like going on stage. Prior to entering the room, I have to prepare. I have to take a deep breath. I have to ground myself before I speak and having a scribe is another person in that room who helps me to remember that. Scribes help me to stay grounded. They remind me to take the phone. They help me to focus on myself. Scribes grab my cane and bring me my sweater if they see that I am cold without me even asking. They remind me to eat and to take a break. Scribes were not meant just to type –  If I wanted it like that, I would say it in a microphone. No – my scribe is my assistant. We all have different strengths and skills and the best skill of a scribe is not just to type – it’s remembering to be an advocate for your doctor.”

I’ve held on to these words for quite some time now. I’ve listened to the recording of our interview during moments where I, too, have felt burnt out. There was a time when I was that scribe, handing him his cane and typing away…

So…What have you learned today? 

*For the purposes of this article, the physician, the hospital, and the associated medical schools’ names have been omitted to maintain anonymity.