Are Doctors Suffering From Compassion Fatigue?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW

Disclosures

December 23, 2013

In This Article

Is Compassion Fatigue a New Phenomenon?

Yes and no, according to experts. It's easy to romanticize the "country doctor" of yesteryear, with his simple lifestyle, black bag, and endless storehouse of compassion.

"It's never been easy to be a doctor," states Richard Levin, MD, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Medicine, New York University and McGill University, and President and CEO of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting humanism in medicine. "Sinclair Lewis' famous book Arrowsmith, published in 1925, portrays the dissatisfaction of a physician in a tiny rural town and his decision to leave private practice and enter research."

But the changing conditions of modern medicine have created new challenges for physicians. "Medicine has changed on all fronts -- fiscal, social, cultural, and scientific," Dr. Levin says. "These dramatic changes have left us unable to provide the support necessary to avoid physician burnout, compassion fatigue, demoralization, and leaving the field."

Alan Rosenstein, MD, a San Francisco-based internist and healthcare management consultant, elaborates. "Changing expectations of physician accountability, increased administrative tasks, and utilization controls that govern how doctors conduct their practice contribute to increased pressure," says Dr. Rosenstein, who is also the Medical Director of Physician Wellness Services, a Minneapolis-based organization designed to help physicians manage day-to-day stress and work-life issues.

Moreover, shifting organizational structures, politics, malpractice threats, and medical "reform" contribute to a sense of powerlessness that leaves little room for an open heart because everyone is in survival mode. "At any moment, your years of effort in building your practice could be destroyed," observes Dr. Drummond.

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