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Changing the Health Care Professionals’ Reality

Burnout, depression, divorce, and suicide impact healthcare workers.

Key points

  • Health care professionals are at the top of the charts when it comes to exhaustion, burnout, depression, divorce, and suicide.
  • The meaningful nature of work can keep health care professionals engaged and on the brink of burnout.
  • Suffering feels real, is determined by our perception, and those facing burnout and depression may benefit from therapy or coaching.
Robert Kneschke/AdobeStock/Jan Bonhoeffer, Courtesy of Wasabi Publicity, Inc.
Can we find the source of all true healing?
Source: Robert Kneschke/AdobeStock/Jan Bonhoeffer, Courtesy of Wasabi Publicity, Inc.

Health care professionals are at the top of the professional charts when it comes to exhaustion, burnout, depression, divorce, and suicide. Now, the COVID pandemic is taking its toll and pushing more of us over the cliff, while the health business is booming. In addition, our actions have become a leading cause of death, as medical errors rank high in the mortality charts. Regulation, algorithms, and quality metrics will not truly heal this condition. They merely treat its symptoms while overlooking the root cause — just as we treat the symptoms of our own patients while we miss the root cause of their suffering.

Did we trade one evil for another while adding ourselves to the global suffering by dismissing our own signs and symptoms of dis-ease? Were we blinded by the stigma of the professional helper needing help of their own, or even addicted to being the invincible hero in the midst of the suffering of local or global emergencies?

Are we willing to look at our own suffering? Do we have the courage to take responsibility? Do we care enough about the essence of our profession to stop being externally referenced and stop moaning and blaming corporate medicine or politics? Why is it that professional disagreements often end with us ridiculing, bullying, mobbing our colleagues, or being condescending? It may make us feel better briefly, but it really does not help anyone in the long term. More importantly, it is not what we set out to become.

Holding 3-year-old Shunyam in my arms at 4 a.m. as he was dying of measles, I heard myself whisper to him, "I will become an infectious disease specialist, I promise." At the time I was a junior visiting doctor in India, and I'd seen too many children die. Often, I would seek out a quiet corner in the hospital to catch a few hours’ sleep before going back on the ward to try to save the precious life of the next child coming in.

At the tail end of the meningitis C outbreak in the UK a few years later, I was working as an infectious disease fellow in London. I texted my beloved, "Dearest, I'd better stay in hospital. Sheila, a 5-year-old blond angel, just died. We tried everything and her parents will never see her smile again. I am exhausted ... devastated ... my next shift starts in 6 hours."

Scroll forward a few years and I had finally fulfilled my promise to Shunyam. I was an infectious disease professional and vaccine specialist in Switzerland, working with the World Health Organization, the European and US CDC, and public health authorities in more than a dozen countries. I clearly remember the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Sleep was once again a snatched luxury, and our families were forced to make space for another global emergency.

What touched me was the human suffering, what struck me was my helplessness and ignorance, and what moved me was the promise of science and the dedication of my colleagues to making a change. And yes, the results are extraordinary. We have safe vaccines and effective antibiotics which can prevent so many diseases, a victory for science and medicine.

There is a different perspective, though. What kept me engaged and on the brink of burnout for over 20 years was the meaningful nature of my work. What also contributed to my commitment was the corporate environment which has gradually taken over medicine, capitalizing on the culture of martyrdom among its staff and offering academic accolades in exchange for personal sacrifice.

Can we fundamentally change our reality and one of our patients in a different way? I believe we can — by understanding the reality of suffering, or the absence thereof.

I do not know whether an objective reality exists independently of the imagery on my mind's inner canvas. Looking for expert advice, I realize that the verdict is out among ontologists, epistemologists, philosophers of science, and modern physicists. However, there is consensus among sages and psychologists that suffering at least feels real and is determined by our perception.

In my personal explorations of my inner landscape, it is clear that perception of reality at a given point in time is based on the perspective of the currently active part of my personality. For example, my perception of a patient will change depending on whether the scientist, the helpful hero, the arrogant professor, or the martyr within are hogging the inner limelight.

From the perspective of that active part, there is only a single “me.” However, I am aware of many personality parts, and the composer of my reality depends on the part of myself that is claiming the stage at any given moment. This is the reality that I live in and the one that is filed in the archive called experience. Becoming aware of the active part in myself allows me to understand the perception of reality.

The insight, one that I did not yet have in medical school, is that it is possible to activate different parts just by giving them attention and providing them a safe place in the “inner circle of personality parts.” Taking the perspective of a different part changes perception, and this changes my reality. Recognizing that the consciousness giving attention to these parts is impartial (not careless) creates a sense of freedom and a potential for healing regardless of the turmoil around me — or inside me.

This, in turn, is energizing and creates a sense of fullness and “enoughness.” From here, blaming others or somehow “othering” my environment seems foolish. This inner peace and stillness are infectious for colleagues and patients alike and it enables healing inside and outside, independently of the currently accepted health outcome measures.

This is all fairly new to me but well-known to the sages. It's my wish for myself and my colleagues facing burnout, fear, depression, and suicide that we may benefit from the wisdom of psychologists, therapists, and coaches. For the hesitant, let me suggest making such education eligible for CME credits.

I wish that healthcare professionals could be supported in seeing that they are not fully at the mercy of a global epidemic, that they are not fully at the mercy of the system they're working in, but that they are also the creators, the artists of their reality. Wouldn't it be refreshing to notice that we already have everything we need to become who we aspired to be when we first started out?

When we're connected with our truth in this way, we are able to be more authentic, more energized, and bring more original creativity to our own situation. We may also give our patients more than what the current model of human medicine has to offer with its focus on the cure of diseases categorized in a Cartesian model and limited by our five senses or their extensions. We may offer what they are truly longing for — as it is in our deepest heart that we find the source of all true healing.

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