The problem of martyrdom in medicine
So if we want to do the right thing for our patients, we have to prioritize our own needs in order to continue to be able to practice medicine over the long haul. The time has come to accept that it is not healthy for us to martyr ourselves on the altar of medicine. We must not use our job as an excuse to avoid nurturing our relationships, or as a security blanket to prevent us from trying things that are new and potentially scary or as a way of feeding our ego.
We also have to give ourselves permission to be human, to be imperfect, and to make mistakes which are inevitable despite our best efforts. Yes, we do require sleep—at least seven to eight hours nightly, and our demand for sleep actually increases with age. And just like we tell our patients, we have to eat regularly, preferably not just crackers and candy bars, and our body yearns for exercise, fresh air and nature!
Hot topic: Are educated patients good for medicine?
And when we have stress in our lives (and just being a doctor and listening to our patients is stressful enough), we need to get the same type of help that we recommend to our patients—a good psychologist that can help us develop insights into our thoughts and behaviors—like why we often feel the need to be workaholics, or how we can get past our perfectionist tendencies, or to simply give us tips to use psychology to be better doctors to our patients.
Taking care of ourselves isn’t selfish. It is good. It is necessary and it is vital for our very survival, just like eating and sleeping. It’s putting on your oxygen mask before helping those around you.
So go ahead and eat lunch. I mean a real, sit-down lunch in the cafeteria or at a restaurant, or at a park bench outside, not out of your lab coat pocket or at your computer. And get some sleep. You need it. Because your patients need you.
Rebekah Bernard is a family physician and the author of How to Be a Rock Star Doctor: The Complete Guide to Taking Back Control of Your Life and Your Profession. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Rebekah Bernard, MD.
[i] Health Care Management Review:January/March 2008 - Volume 33 - Issue 1 - pp 29-39 doi: 10.1097/01.HMR.0000304493.87898.72
[ii] Burnout and medical errors among American surgeons Annals of Surgery, 251 (2010), pp. 995–1000
[iii] Working conditions in primary care: Physician reactions and care quality Annals of Internal Medicine, 151 (2009), pp. 28–36