October 26th, 2020
Futility as a Cause of Burnout in Residency
At the beginning of my residency training, one of our program leaders defined burnout as “work out of proportion to meaning.” In a sense, I think this also defines futility – performing a disproportionate amount of work compared with the results or meaning you are deriving from the work. The proposed causes of burnout in residency are broad – emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, lack of “resilience,” inordinate workload, sleep deprivation, and lack of time for leisure activities. However, the perception of futility also plays a significant role in burnout for residents. Below, I outline how feelings of futility contributed to my personal periods of burnout during residency.
In the ICU
I grappled for a long time with whether critical care was a good fit for me. I enjoyed the complex physiology, the consistent application of all areas of internal medicine, and the opportunity to help patients and their families through extreme illness and sometimes death. But I noticed as I completed my ICU rotations that I routinely started experiencing burnout and severe emotional exhaustion about 2 weeks into these rotations. Having experienced burnout of various durations in different settings throughout residency, I wondered what the precise cause of my burnout was in the ICU environment. Several years ago, I wrote about an experience I had as a second-year resident in performing CPR on an unfortunate elderly patient with multiple untreatable medical conditions. For this patient, CPR was never going to be helpful. I argued that my patient with severe anemia, heart failure, and metastatic cancer, had he been resuscitated, would still have had severe anemia, heart failure, and metastatic cancer. A portion of my ICU experiences centered on what I felt were futile efforts at resuscitation of patients who would never benefit from CPR. I reasoned that surgeons have the option to withhold interventions that have a low likelihood of success; why are we in medicine forced to perform a procedure (CPR) that in many instances has a success rate so low that a surgeon would never operate with those same odds? My disgust with performing CPR on patients in which it was futile reached the point that I rushed to run codes for fear of otherwise having to perform chest compressions. I spent many sleepless nights during and after ICU rotations grimacing at the thought of an elder’s osteoporotic ribs snapping beneath my hands like twigs in a futile effort to revive them. This perception of intense futility led me to burnout on all of my ICU rotations and ultimately turned me away from a career in critical care. Thankfully, many satisfying and rewarding aspects of critical care draw residents to this field, including the ability to see fast turnaround in very sick patients and interesting and complex pathophysiology. But the emotional aspects can truly contribute to feelings of futility and burnout.
On the inpatient wards and in the clinic
I remember inpatient wards and certain experiences in clinic during intern year being particularly rife with feelings of futility. The emotional distress on the wards and the clinic focused more often on the inability to provide patients with the care I felt they needed and deserved, but were unable to obtain, due to insurance or other systemic limitations. However, in these settings, a unique fuel for these feelings of futility centered less on emotional distress. I remember feeling inundated with endless documentation, phone calls for prior authorization requests, trying to meet unknown requirements to get patients to subspecialty appointments, and struggling to get help from ancillary services like physical therapy and social work to discharge patients to a safe living environment. I recall spending 60 minutes on the phone with an insurance company to ask them to approve an SGLT-2 inhibitor for my clinic patient, only to have them tell me they had to try two other oral diabetes medications first. I remember endless wait times with the appointment scheduling line for our health system, only to be told that the creatinine on the lab from last week was not recent enough for the patient to get a CT scan with contrast; I would need a more recent creatinine value. These experiences are not unique, physicians both in practice and in training report a significant administrative burden in the inpatient and outpatient settings that contribute to burnout. The feelings of futility regarding the time spent on an objective compared to the outcome achieved (or not achieved) was a major cause of burnout for me.
So, how can residency programs alleviate burnout in their residents? This question is worthy of its own blog post, and I think the answer differs based on the cause of the burnout. However, with futility as a common thread among multiple causes of burnout, I think emphasizing and celebrating the things trainees are doing that are making a difference for their patients is critical. For a resident who just performed 30 minutes of chest compressions on a patient who was never going to survive, it makes a difference to say “Hey, I know those chest compressions were rough, but I think the way you called the code at the end and asked for a moment of silence was really meaningful for the family and for the patient’s memory.” Or for a battle-worn resident who has just gotten off a long call with an insurance company, a supervising physician could make an impact by saying, “I know those calls can be frustrating, but look at the improved glucose control you’ve achieved on this patient since meeting him. We’ll try these other meds first, and next time we’ll know the requirements for this insurance company.” Whether you’re a colleague or a supervisor for a burned-out resident, never underestimate the power of a few encouraging words in the face of feelings of overwhelming futility.
Mian A et al. Medical student and resident burnout: A review of causes, effects, and prevention. J Fam Med Disease Prev 2018; 4:1510094. (https://doi.org/10.23937/2469-5793/1510094)
Ishak WW et al. Burnout during residency training: A literature review. J Grad Med Educ 2009 Dec; 1:236. (https://doi.org/10.4300/jgme-d-09-00054.1)