Telemedicine: A cure for physician burnout?May 12, 2017
At the end of my daughter’s first week of preschool, she came home with a burning question: “Mom, my friend at school says that she has two days in a row when she and her mommy and daddy are all home at the same time. They call it a weekend. Will we ever have a weekend?”
I was floored. That simple question encapsulated the only life she had known as a doctor’s daughter. In the four years since she was born, she had never had a consistent, secure time when I would be home. I had her while I was still in residency, and 80-hour workweeks were more common than 40-hour ones. When I graduated from residency, in an effort to spend more time with my family, I took a shift work position in a hospital. Working 12- and 24-hour shifts meant that I could be home on my off days, but it also meant that nights, weekends, and holidays were all fair game. In addition, driving to the hospital required significant commuting time; my drive home after a 24-hour shift could easily be over an hour, compounding my exhaustion.
These long and erratic hours took a toll on my emotional and physical health. I started displaying the typical signs of physician burnout: emotional exhaustion and the feeling of processing my patients, instead of caring for them. Where I had previously felt sympathy and compassion for parents who were so scared for their child that they brought them to the emergency room for a simple cold, I began to blame them for exposing their child to the chaotic and dirty hospital. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment for saving the life of a newborn, I felt like each resuscitation was just an error away from a devastating outcome. I needed to find balance and boundaries to my work, and the ability to recover in between seeing patients.
One day, an email came through my inbox, offering physicians like me the ability to work flexible hours from home by providing care online. I was immediately drawn to the idea of using technology to improve health care, and I became one of the growing number of physicians who turned to telemedicine to reverse the effects of burn out. After some research, I joined a reputable online physician group that provides urgent care through video visits. When I want to see patients, I log into a platform and parents can see that I am available to offer urgent care services to their children. I see as many patients as I want, and then log off the website when I am done. Now, I can see patients when it works with my schedule, from my own home. I’ve eliminated my horrible commute and opened up time to see my family. I no longer have the stress of wondering who will stay home with my child on a snow day or if she is sick. The ability to take control of my schedule while still practicing medicine has given me a new sense of purpose and a feeling that work/life balance is actually possible.
I’ve also found that seeing patients in their own homes is fun and rewarding in a way I didn’t initially expect. Parents are often extremely grateful that they can see a pediatrician without having to travel to an urgent care center or emergency room. Just as I had always had to juggle work and children, the parents of my patients are also under significant stress when they have to miss work to see a doctor. Doing telemedicine has made health care easier for both of us, making us all healthier.
More hospitals and clinics are embracing telemedicine as an additional way to see patients. Right now, urgent care is the most popular use for telemedicine, but every day I meet an increasing number of doctors who are utilizing the ability to see patients through a video visit into their schedules. These physicians tell me that they too feel empowered by the ability to see patients without having to drive long distances and that the appreciation they get from their patients makes them remember why they entered medicine in the first place. The potential for telemedicine to drive convenience and compassion for both physicians and patients is immense. As for now, I’m just happy that the word “weekend” is in my daughter’s vocabulary.