HealthMay 27, 2020

Does physician burnout have to mean working as a part-time doctor?

By: Heidi Moawad, MD
Can working as a part-time doctor help improve physician quality of life? Consider the trade-offs before you cut your hours.

Going part time is one commonly proposed solution for battling physician burnout. After all, unlike leaving medicine, it allows you to keep doing what you love - and trained all those years for -  just without some of the stress. Yet working as a part-time doctor often does mean making some sacrifices, including financial ones. And it might have career implications you could end up regretting.

As you consider ways to lighten your load and improve your well-being as a physician, reflect on your values and decide whether cutting back your hours will help you achieve them.

Consider the source of your burnout

With "physician burnout" now a buzzword, there's no shortage of discussions on the topic, including controversies about the phrase itself. Some sources argue that the word "burnout" places blame on the physician, and a better term would be "moral injury." Regardless of terminology, multiple factors contribute to work-life balance issues for physicians, according to an article in Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. Can working as a part-time doctor help improve physician quality of life? Consider the trade-offs before you cut your hours.Determining factors for physician well-being include stress, anxiety, fatigue and professional fulfillment.

As you consider the sources of your own dissatisfaction, you might pinpoint on-the-job frustrations such as a toxic colleague or a lack of resources needed to carry out your work. On the other hand, you might have work problems that prevent you from achieving your needs at home, such as unfairly low pay or inadequate time for your family, friends or self-care. Switching to part-time work can alleviate some of these issues, but it can't solve all of them.

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Identify what you're missing out on

Time is the most limited and valuable resource for physicians, as a paper in Academic Medicine argues. If you gain some time by cutting back on work, what will you do with your extra hours? Will you spend them with your family? Will you take on another professional endeavor such as locum tenens or expert witness work to make up for decreased income? Will you take better care of your health by sleeping and exercising more?

Anything you choose to do with your time is valid. But before making an adjustment in your hours, consider the changes you want to make in your life and adapt your schedule to help you achieve those objectives. For example, if you want to take on some occasional locums assignments, it might make up for the lost income - but if you start working a schedule of five short days per week, adding in that type of extra work might not be feasible.

Find ways to Improve your efficiency

If you love your job but can't keep up with time-consuming demands, focus on strategies to build efficiency. These strategies could improve your satisfaction without needing to reduce your hours. For example, documentation notoriously interferes with face-to-face patient time. Working with a medical scribe can help alleviate your documentation burden so you can pay more attention to your patients. Scheduling patients who need specific supplies on the same day can help you streamline those procedures.

And creative shortcuts can help. For example, when you need to deal with peer-to-peer discussions, request to speak about all of your patients who are in the queue so you can get things done more efficiently. If time-saving solutions make your workday smoother, you might be more satisfied and less burned out.

Don't let fear hold you back from going part time

You might fear that becoming a part-time doctor could hinder your standing at work or hold you back from job security and promotions. But a report in Diseases of the Colon and Rectum emphasizes that burnout has become a rapidly rising epidemic for physicians. If you have to cut back your hours to achieve a healthy work-life balance, don't beat yourself up about it. Those promotions may be in your future after all.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I remember being so stressed as I tiptoed around the subject of part-time work with a highly respected senior physician leader. I was stunned when she told me she had worked part time 25 years earlier, ramping up her work when she felt ready to do so. Nothing speaks louder than doing a good job. If you step away from full-time hours but continue to do top-notch work, you'll still be in demand and can take on all the responsibilities you want.

Heidi Moawad, MD
Lippincott Journals
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