"We can do better"
Gabe Charbonneau, MD
Family Medicine, Stevensville, Montana
Gabe Charbonneau, MD, experienced burnout in 2009 when the demands of practice limited the time he and his wife, also a practicing physician, were able to spend with their new son. When the family grew to three kids, something had to change. His solution was to share a practice with his wife, so that one of them would always be at the practice while the other was with the kids.
“It was super scary, but the best decision we ever made,” says Charbonneau. “We gave up a massive amount of income and had to throw some material things overboard, but our quality of life went way up.”
From there, he began to think about how he could help other doctors fight burnout. “I met so many people who were intelligent, smart, and good doctors, but they were stuck with issues that were insurmountable,” says Charbonneau. “I had an idea that I needed to come up with something symbolic that would give hope to these smart people that they could get to a better place than where we were stuck.”
The result was an image of the Rod of Asclepius being lifted out of the ashes by a phoenix that he printed on a shirt and displayed on his website, fightburnout.org. The American Medical Association wrote an article about his efforts, interest in the shirts and the cause grew, and now he describes himself as “an accidental person who became an expert on burnout.”
He hopes that his efforts lead to greater awareness of the problem, and that employers will take a hard look at physician workloads and start indexing their burnout so they can measure progress—or lack thereof.
“Leaders often talk about well-being and burnout, but it doesn’t make it onto their financial spreadsheets,” he says. “They offer wellness classes and nice things that are supposed to be helpful, but there is no accountability for physician well-being. They can make a decision in the boardroom that can destroy their doctors, because they are chasing after every dollar.”
One proven solution for reducing burnout is to have physicians meet in a social setting outside of work to share experiences, where they can see they are not alone in their feelings and can share coping advice, he says. There is also a doctor-to-doctor peer support group on Facebook if no local group is available.
“I throw down the challenge that all of us need to start to help unravel this problem before we lose more good physicians and drive them out of medicine,” he says. “I know we can do better. As a society, we have to own this problem.”