Clinicians Must Care for Themselves, as well as Their Patients

by Adena Cohen-Bearak, MEd, MPH“I love being a doctor. It’s what I always wanted to do, this work so rich in content and even richer in meaning. There is gratitude, comfort and undeniable privilege,” states Ranjana Srivastava, an oncologist who has practiced medicine in Australia for the past 20 years

She continues:  “Still, on many days I feel emotionally barren, fearing that the day has just begun and I have nothing left to give.”

In her recent article Doctors and nurses must find compassion for themselves, not just their patients published in The Guardian, Srivastava describes her dilemma. During her typical workday, she rushes from patient to patient, from crisis to crisis, with little time to reflect or rest. What does she do about a refugee patient with a failing liver who desperately wants to see his family one last time? How does she talk with the husband of a beloved patient who is now in hospice and dying?

She faces competing demands at every turn, each of which is emotional and heartbreaking; together almost impossible to bear.  Yet this is the norm among many healthcare professionals today. Srivastava describes it as “an epidemic of silent suffering.”

While  the term “self-care” has become overused lately, it is essential for physicians and nurses, as well as other health care professionals, to learn how to take care of themselves. This may include taking more time off; delegating responsibilities to others; scheduling time for breaks and relaxation during the workday;  making time for training and workshops;  and creating opportunities to share challenges with co-workers to create a culture of support.

One aspect of self-care is learning how to better communicate with patients and co-workers. Our IPEP Difficult Conversations workshops provide strategies and practice for clinicians experiencing stress due to emotions experienced during challenging conversations. In addition, our PERCS Rounds offer bi-monthly opportunities for hospital staff to discuss everyday challenges in a supportive atmosphere.

“Changing the culture of medicine needs many actions but I think one that each individual can control is the need for self-care. The notion that we, whose job it is to provide compassion, may actually be in need of it feels misplaced when every patient appears needier,” says Dr. Srivastava, who in addition to being an oncologist, is a Fulbright scholar and an award-winning author.

“But doctors and nurses must realize that self-care and altruism can co-exist. Protecting our own emotional health is compatible with advocacy for others. Without compassion for the self, we will have nothing left to give.”

Dr. Ranjana Srivistava is an Australian oncologist, a Fulbright scholar and an award-winning author. Her latest book is “After Cancer: A Guide to Living Well”. She is the recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia for her contribution to doctor-patient communication.