A study on burnout among physicians last month founds that doctors who feel plagued by the demands of work are less likely to view their work with patients as a "calling" that has meaning.

"If physicians only view their occupation as a job, that has implications over time in terms of their commitment to their patients," said senior author Dr. Audiey Kao, vice president of ethics at the American Medical Association (AMA).

Her study surveyed 2,000 doctors across the United States between 2014 to 2015, and while over 93% said they found the work rewarding, only 44% said they would continue to work without pay, even if they did not need the money.

“Some researchers in the field have described burnout as an experience of dislocation between what people are doing versus what they aspired to do," said John Yoon, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the study.

The costs vs. the rewards

According to physician Nina Radcliff, the time spent on the journey of becoming a qualified doctor takes an average of 14 years in the US. This means that the typical doctors do not earn a full-time salary until 10 years after they start making money.

“It is important as a watchful nation that we continually address this to ensure an education dedicated to healing people is not so absurdly costly that it makes it too difficult to attain — that we are literally driving away promising, talented future interests,” said Radcliff.

In addition, the education cost for a physician is estimated by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to be between $170,000 and $200,000 for 84% of 2014’s graduating class, setting it as a number one concern related to pursuing a career as a physician. It has also been found that the cost of becoming a doctor has soared while the average salaries are declining.

However, pay is still high, with doctors accounting for the preponderance of six-figure positions in the country. Moreover, perhaps the focus should be that a physician will not only receive monetary rewards but also humanistic rewards that are priceless, echoing Radcliff’s view. She said that while the costs are great, so are the rewards as doctors are entrusted with the human connection and the awe of treating the human body.

“Physicians have the opportunity to be a part of the health care world to make a difference in lives, to help people through care and aid in the healing process,” Radcliff added.

The calling vs. the real world

In a recent survey of working hours and job satisfaction among healthcare professionals in Singapore and Malaysia by MIMS, burnout and work-life balance were major concerns. This echoes the findings for most physicians in the US, UK and China – to name a few – are now also working longer and more irregular hours. Radcliff pointed out that increasingly frequent doctor shortages only worsen the situation.

Hence, she urged the overstretched doctors to manage their stress and work to maintain a healthy work-life balance to avoid burnout. “Our training reinforces innate workaholic tendencies and the “call” to keep on keeping on at full-steam ahead in order not to fall behind schedules. As well, the documentation requirements are a constant pressing work. Physicians and health care professionals must continue to take steps to alleviate their burnout.”

Furthermore, medicine is compared to a “calling” much like priesthood as a driving passion is needed to become a physician and to help people. Once the decision of becoming a doctor is made, he or she should pursue it whole-heartedly.

So, is becoming a doctor recommended?

According to Kao, if physicians only see their occupation as a job, it will affect their long-term commitment to their patients. "Having physicians who view their work as a sense of calling is not only important for physicians but as important if not more important for the patients they care for."

Radcliff adds, “The key for a prospective doctor is to manage his or her expectations, by acknowledging the challenges associated with the profession. Recognising (and counting the costs as well as the rewards of) these realities helps doctors live up to the ideals and understandings that inspired them to medicine in the first place.”

"Everyone, including doctors, wants to be doing work that contributes to some greater good beyond themselves - work that feels authentic to who they are without compromising their integrity," states Yoon. MIMS

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