Are Doctors Suffering From Compassion Fatigue?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW


December 23, 2013

In This Article


You went into medicine for the primary purpose of helping people, and doing that makes your profession rewarding. Granted, it's never easy: Many patients have serious and painful conditions, and despite your best efforts, you'll never be able to satisfy every one of them. And some people simply don't help themselves.

Little by little, your frustrations mount. What was once a fulfilling job turns into one where you're feeling increasingly exasperated or short-tempered. You know it's wrong to feel this way -- and you hope patients don't notice -- but you can't seem to reverse course.

Experts call this "compassion fatigue," a stress disorder defined as "deep physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion that can result from working day-to-day in a caregiving environment."[1] The term was first coined in 1992 by a nurse researching burnout in the emergency department and has since been generalized to every helping profession, with recent research suggesting that physicians are among the most heavily affected.

According to Medscape's 2013 Physician Lifestyle Report, a survey of over 24,000 US physicians, many respondents regarded compassion fatigue as an important component of burnout. Commenting on the report's findings, one physician wrote, "I find it hard to keep my 'compassion windows' open all the time when there's pressure, paperwork, and so many patients with so many painful problems."

This "patient-first" default, while admirable, can eventually become crippling. Simply put, it prevents you from being recharged. "Everyone has a physical, emotional, and spiritual 'bank account,'" observes Dike Drummond, MD, Executive Coach and CEO of The Happy MD, an organization focused on physician burnout prevention and leadership. "You can help others only if you have a positive balance in your bank account. If you're draining the account, you won't have anything left." The ability to be there for others, he says, depends on self-care and creating a healthy work-life balance.

A Gradual Process

Like most conditions, compassion fatigue doesn't spring up overnight. "The demands of the job, the sense of responsibility for the lives of others, and constant exposure to pain and suffering in an adverse healthcare environment lead to compassion fatigue," notes Dr. Drummond.

This "downward spiral" occurs partially because physicians aren't trained to examine their feelings. The "brainwashing" in medical culture is subtle and can make physicians "feel guilty about having emotions" and less disposed to being self-reflective about their reactions and behaviors, according to Dr. Drummond.


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