The Aha Moment of Physician Gratitude

Janae Sharp
JANUARY 04, 2019
physician burnout,janae sharp physician,physician suicide

I was encouraged by the idea that patients can make a difference in the fight against physician burnout and suicide by writing a letter of gratitude. While I was discussing this idea on Twitter, one patient asked if providers were blaming patients for physician burnout. The commenter pointed out that this would be misplaced and that physicians shouldn’t need extra thanks for doing their job.

As a person, I don’t entirely disagree. It is not the fault of patients. They are not responsible for fixing the physician burnout problem. They are not responsible for a faulty system that also hurts them.

>> READ: Finding the Right Balance to Fight Physician Burnout

As a suicide loss survivor, I consider nothing more exciting than the idea that we can improve crippled system that we have. Patients are not at fault, but they can make a difference. We did not break the system, and it is not our responsibility to fix it. But we might fix it anyway.

I spoke with Spencer Kubo, M.D., of CareCognitics, about the letters of thanks that he has seen and what he would say about the gratitude movement. What should we say to physicians?

Here is his response. (Note: It has been lightly edited for style.)
 

Humanizing Medicine

You know you have read a great article when you get the inescapable feeling that someone had shined a bright light on a subject so that you now see things with incredible clarity and insight.

It is too much to label these moments as an epiphany, but let’s at least call them aha moments.

I had such an aha moment reading an article by Janae Sharp of Healthcare Analytics News™. In the piece, she interviewed Sachin Jain, M.D., MBA, the head of CareMore, about patient gratitude. Dr. Jain made the radical suggestion that asked patients to write to their doctor about why they were grateful for their medical care. He provided an example of a beautiful letter from a patient that had “this is why I went into medicine” written all over it. It was not my patient, of course, but I was soon flooded by joyful and tearful moments from my own career of receiving similar letters from patients and their families. Or a memory of a heartfelt hug when no words are exchanged, but there are a million thoughts of gratitude and the joy that comes with the special bond between a doctor and a patient. Ironically, these hugs can occur during moments of great success, such as getting through a heart transplant surgery, or after great sadness, such as turning off respirators after a prolonged and unsuccessful journey in the ICU. All doctors have these moments that leave us gasping for air but satiated with the feeling that “this makes everything worthwhile.”

Then one comes back down to earth and thinks, “Could this suggestion to ask patients to write to their doctor actually work?” Could this be the antidote to all of the frustrations of the churn of 10- to 20-minute follow-up visits, the unending electronic medical record requirements, and unrelenting oversight by insurance geeks who don’t see the patient but rather resource utilization? Could this be an answer to physician burnout?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that I have gone back to the special shoebox that contains pictures of patients and their letters of gratitude. It has been some time since that shoebox has been opened. It is a very special, quiet moment to re-read the letters and re-create the moments that are captured in the picture. They are deeply personal and rewarding.

So, to all my physician colleagues, I suggest you try it. This may not be the answer to physician burnout, but I’ll be surprised if you don’t feel a sudden rush of energy!

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