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Last Word


Quit complaining

Quit complaining

There's a well-known principle in the service sector: A patron can be only as satisfied as the person taking care of him. The same principle could as easily apply to the practice of medicine.

Unfortunately, physician job satisfaction in recent years has been declining steadily, as a variety of sources makes clear.

Why are doctors so dissatisfied? To a great extent, it has to do with unfulfilled job expectations. Indeed, after four years of medical school and two to eight years of post-graduate training, doctors expect a high-level of job satisfaction. And when the reality of their professional lives doesn't measure up to that expectation—as so often happens these days—they become dissatisfied.

But research confirms there are ways for dissatisfied physicians to increase their job satisfaction. Here are some ideas to consider.

First, set realistic personal and career goals. Don't allow yourself to get trapped in a frozen state of grief, idealizing a past era of medicine but unable to practice effectively in the current one. Despite the drawbacks, medicine today still offers a fulfilling career choice, if you approach it with the right attitude. Apply the same realism that you apply to clinical care, where, try as you might, you simply can't prevent a stroke in every hypertensive patient, for instance.

Second, take care of yourself, letting go the medical school myth of the "iron man" and "superwoman." You can't do it all, so don't even try. And follow the same advice you give to your patients when it comes to regular exercise, better nutrition, and ongoing stress management.

Third, develop strong physician-patient relationships, which we know are essential for enhancing job satisfaction. Start by improving your communication skills and becoming more compassionate and empathetic—qualities patients respond to positively and which can enhance the quality of care.

Fourth, develop strong enough peer relationships so that you feel part of a team. This sense of being connected is especially important when caring for complicated patients or when coping with mistakes.

Fifth, assume an active role in the organizations and institutions in which you work. As you help to nurture them, they will help to nurture you, providing a forum in which to express your talent and best self.

Finally, accept responsibility for your own happiness. Yes, it's easy to blame politicians, lawyers, and insurance companies for all the hassles we face. But in doing so, aren't we giving them a disproportionate power over our lives—a power that makes it harder to assume responsibility for our own happiness?

Perhaps to practice more successfully and happily in today's world, you need to develop new skills—negotiation, delegation, systems thinking, information technology, continuous quality improvement. Any of these, properly applied, could help us take charge of our own professional lives.

We also need to make more systemic changes. We need to incorporate methods for measuring and improving job satisfaction into the traditional medical school curriculum. Indeed, the emphasis on measuring and improving satisfaction should follow doctors whatever their practice setting.

The key to better patient satisfaction is improving our own job satisfaction. As physicians, we owe our patients nothing less.


Patrick Torcson. Last Word: Quit complaining. Medical Economics Aug. 20, 2004;81:76.

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