Conference Coverage

ACGME deepening its commitment to physician well-being, leader says



– When Timothy P. Brigham, MDiv, PhD, thinks about the impact of burnout and stress on the ability of physicians to practice medicine, Lewin’s equation comes to mind.

Medical staff group meeting at a table FatCamera/Getty Images

Developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1936, the equation holds that behavior stems from a person’s personality and the environment that person inhabits.

“We suspect that 70%-80% of the problem with burnout and stress in medicine is environmental,” Dr. Brigham, chief of staff and chief education and organizational development officer at the Chicago-based Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s a toxic mine, in some ways. What we tend to do is when we detect that physicians in general are, or a particular residency program is, too stressed out or burned out, we give them resilience training. Not that that’s unimportant, but it’s like putting a canary in a toxic mine full of poison and saying, ‘We’re going to teach you to hold your breath a little bit longer.’ Our job is to detoxify the mine.”

Troubled by the rise of suicides among physicians in recent years as well as mounting evidence about the adverse impact of burnout and stress on the practice of medicine, Dr. Brigham said that the ACGME is deepening its commitment to the well-being of faculty, residents, patients, and all members of the health care team. Since launching a “call to arms” on the topic at its annual educational conference in 2015, the ACGME has added courses on well-being to its annual meeting and remolded its Clinical Learning Environmental Review program to include all clinicians, “because everybody is affected by this: nurses, coordinators, et cetera,” he said. The ACGME also has revised Common Program Requirements, disseminated tools and resources to promote well-being and new knowledge on the topic, and partnered with the National Academy of Medicine Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience – all in an effort to bring about culture change.

“But we’re well aware that the ACGME can’t do this alone,” Dr. Brigham said. “We can’t ‘requirement’ our way out of this problem. It’s going to take a culture shift. Only you physicians, in collaboration with everyone in your community of learning, can create the systemic change required to improve our culture. We have a good handle on the problem at this point, but the solutions are a little bit more difficult to get a hold of. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.’ ”

The ACGME wants to work with physicians “to collect data and do joint research, to share insights, and to share tools and resources to create a better world for practicing physicians, for other members of the health care team, and for patients. After all, clinicians who care for themselves provide better care for others. They’re less likely to make errors or leave the profession,” Dr. Brigham told attendees.

He added that clinicians can gauge their risk for burnout by asking themselves three simple questions about their work environment: Does it support self-care? Does it increase and support connection with colleagues? Does it connect people to purpose and meaningful work?

“One of the problems with our resident clinical work hours is not terrible program directors saying, ‘work longer.’ It’s residents who want to take care of families for 1 more hour,” Dr. Brigham continued. “It’s residents who want to take care of patients who are going through a difficult time. You represent the top 2% in the world in terms of your intelligence and achievement, yet that’s not what makes you special. What makes you special is that the level of self-doubt in this room exceeds that of the general population by about 10 times. You also tend to run toward what everyone else runs away from: disease, despair, people who are injured and suffering. That takes a toll.”

Dr. Timothy P. Brigham, chief of staff and chief education and organizational development officer, Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Courtesy AAP

Dr. Timothy P. Brigham

He emphasized that positive social relationships with others are crucial to joy and well-being in the practice of medicine. “Burnout isn’t just about exhaustion; it’s about loneliness,” Dr. Brigham said. “There’s a surprising power in just asking people how they’re doing, and really wanting to know the answer.”

Negative social connections are highly correlated with burnout and depression, such as harassment, bullying, mistreatment, discrimination, “and using the power gradient to squash somebody who’s trying their best to be a physician,” he said.

Dr. Brigham acknowledged the tall task of bringing a spotlight to well-being as physicians continue to engage in tasks such as the burden and lack of standardization of prior authorization requirements, the burden of clinical documentation requirements, electronic health records and related work flow, and quality payment programs. “This is what we need to shift; this is what we need to take away so you can get back in touch with why you became a physician in the first place.”

Dr. Brigham reported having no financial disclosures.

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