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When Burnout Comes Back

Analysis  |  By Debra Shute  
   December 21, 2017

Clinician burnout isn't necessarily a one-time event. One doctor who experienced recurrent burnout during his 20-year medical career shares his story.

Experts estimate that the cost to replace a burned-out physician who has left an organization ranges from $250,000 to $1 million—and that doesn’t account for losses due to lost productivity or medical mistakes.

While researchers work to come up with a broad calculation of burnout costs, the emotional toll on clinicians is undeniable, especially since burnout isn’t necessarily a one-time occurrence.

There are circumstances in which a physician at your organization may return to medicine after a burnout. 

Related: Beating Clinician Burnout

Chi Huang, MD, SFHM, FACP, is executive medical director of general medicine and hospital medicine shared services and section chief of hospital medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and an associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest Medical School. He offers his insights about what you should know to foster your team's long-term well-being.

The following transcript has been lightly edited.

HealthLeaders Media: Professional burnout is typically presented as an isolated occurrence. Do you think your experience of burning out and recovering multiple times is unusual?

Chi Huang, MD: I don't know if "re-burnout" is a new phenomenon to healthcare, or it's just me burning out two to three times in my career.

The first time I burned out was when I was an attending in the United States and also helping to start a nonprofit working with street children and child prostitutes in South America. Juggling work as a physician running a nonprofit, and being a father and husband was a great deal of pressure on many fronts. It wasn't until I had this experience that I really understood what burnout was and was able to define it.

I burned out two other times during my career as a physician leader and, by then, I was able to recognize and label it.

Related: Stop Ignoring Physician Burnout

HLM: Perhaps we don't hear much about re-burnout among physicians because many of them quit. Why have you kept coming back to medicine?

Huang, MD: I just love taking care of people. That's why I started the nonprofit, which has since ended. But I love taking care of kids on the streets at 2 a.m. when no one else will; I love taking care of patients on the floor at the end of life or the beginning of life. I just love being able to help people.

There are several reasons that I've been able to return to medicine.

One is that I've been blessed to be around people who are able to help understand me and what's going on in the burnout and mental health realm. They understand that this is something that occurs and can be addressed.

Debra Shute is the Senior Physicians Editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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