Taking care of the doctors who treat us

By Ana Zink

Updated: 7 hours ago Published: 7 hours ago

Years of data tell us that doctors have one of the highest rates of suicide, even higher than the military. Approximately 300 physicians die by suicide each year, double the national average. Medical students experience an estimated rate of depression between 15% and 30% higher than the general population. Despite these sad statistics, the mental health of healthcare workers is largely ignored. It is time to change the culture of medicine to support doctors and recognize the humanity of medicine.

We often forget that our healthcare providers are human. We ask doctors to be superhuman, expecting them to forgo sick days, work long hours, and survive grueling academic training that focuses on everything but their own humanity. Burnout is not the failure of a person, but the failure of a system. The prevailing system of medicine in the US diminishes the humanity of doctors and leaves them without support.

As the medical director for the state of Alaska, I have been able to help structurally change our support systems for students. Alaska WWAMI, part of the five-state cooperative medical school at the University of Washington School of Medicine, has done a particularly good job of creating this type of support system. Many WWAMI students have fulfilling lives outside of their studies. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but unfortunately it is in the medical profession.

Traditional residency programs require students to reside within the hospital. Time commitments make it virtually impossible for students to have a life outside of their studies, leading to 45% of medical residents experiencing burnout. This perpetuates the perception that doctors should work to exhaustion or even suicide.

[The pandemic didn’t cause Alaska’s doctor deficit, but it made the situation worse]

Becoming a doctor is often considered a calling. While I love this idea and feel the same way, it often implies a lifelong commitment to the profession. I found that in order to fully commit to my profession, I have to make sure that I fully commit to myself as well. That includes my family, my sleep, my diet, my exercise, and my mental health. Taking care of others is impossibly difficult when there is no time or space to take care of yourself.

My hope is that we can change the culture of medicine so that we can support the whole patient and the whole caregiver. By being well ourselves, we have the physical energy, passion, mental capacity and compassion necessary to serve our patients. Programs like WWAMI help in this effort by working to change the health care education system, raising expectations for future generations of physicians.

[Surgeon general warns of ‘crisis’ level health care burnout]

Although May is Mental Health Awareness Month, this is an ongoing conversation and will involve medical educators, policymakers, professionals, and students. We are strongest when we partner with other programs and institutions to learn from each other and create support systems that improve current and future physicians.

Dr. Anne Zink is Alaska’s chief medical officer and oversees public health for the state.

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