As medical professionals we spend so much time and emotional energy caring about patients that we potentially deplete our reserves early in our careers. Some of us overdo it to the point of burnout. Some of us have so much of our own drama to deal with that there is very little compassion left to dish out.
Recognizing your individual compassion fatigue level will preserve your sanity. What is your compassion fatigue level?
Maybe you can take care of 30 lonely geriatric patients in one day and never feel compassion fatigue. But maybe you’ll hit one self-destructive teenager and you prematurely exhaust your compassion reserves.
I’ve grown a thick skin over the years which isn’t a good coping mechanism. On the outside I hide my compassion fatigue well and, like most other clinicians, take it out on myself.
I hate to deprive my patients of that warm genuine nougaty Nutella compassion. I know when I’m dishing it out – my patients melt with that shit. Preserving and protecting my compassion is critical because it not only is what my patients deserve but it helps my career longevity.
Individual Compassion Fatigue
It takes very little for me to reach my compassion fatigue. It fortunately repletes after some time but it can take a while. My refractory period is rather long. You’d serve yourself and your patients well recognizing your individual compassion fatigue level.
This blog is for physicians so frankly I care more about you than our customers. Recognizing your compassion fatigue level will prevent you from burning out of medicine.
It’s like investing. You need to know your financial profile and can’t just take generic advice. Generic advice is a sure way to fail at investing. It won’t take into account your individual risk profile, your investment return needs, and how hands-on/off you want to be.
What exhausts your compassion?
Is it drug seekers that you need to avoid?
Do you identify excessively with the sad/depressed patients?
Is it the overbearing parents who increase your compassion fatigue?
Does incompetent staff decrease your compassion?
Do you respond poorly to whiney men or needy female patients?
Do you have a hard time seeing children who are suffering?
Recognizing our compassion fatigue level can help us recognize when we are going to be hitting that practice wall. With this information we can create a more realistic medical practice plan and even plan our personal finances accordingly.
Preserving Your Compassion
It’s not that I’m a bad person or an uncaring physician but if I have a lot of my own problems going on in my head then I have that much less compassion to give up.
Compassion fatigue is not even on your radar when you first start practicing medicine. And probably not a bid deal if you’re a pathologist.
To preserve our compassion it helps to take care of our emotional state. Which is hard to do when so many others rely on us as clinicians.
The simplest way to avoid compassion exhaustion or minimize it is to practice less medicine. Work fewer hours and see fewer patients.
When you’re burnt out there is no compassion left – you’re just pretending. Feigning compassion takes a ton of effort and is absolutely exhausting.
Us introverts know this very well. We have to fake the majority of our interactions and by the end of the day it feels like we ran an emotional marathon.
The difference between being burnt out and having compassion fatigue is that the latter is restorable. Every few days you can build up your reserves back up.
Being burnt out means you have nothing left. You don’t know how to give a fuck anymore. You’ve likely let your own life slide pretty far and your professional life is hanging on by a thread.
Being burnt out means you’re constantly fantasizing of ways your entire life could come crashing down so that you could have an excuse to stop and stand still.
Work Fewer Hours
I practice medicine only a handful of hours a week. It’s perfect for me and I don’t feel much compassion fatigue this way. It took me a while to figure out my compassion fatigue level for which I didn’t even have a name until recently.
On occasion I fall back on some bad habits when a patient is driving me up the wall. I shut down and my compassion runs on E instantaneously. Then I realize that I don’t have to do this – that I am choosing to see patients and that I don’t need the money. This makes me snap out of it and I’m back in the empathy game.
Here are some practice modifications which might help you:
- See fewer patients in your practice if it’s possible.
- Give into really complicated patients.
- Not every antibiotic battle is worth fighting.
- Start seeing patients later in the day.
- Don’t work long shifts.
- Assign yourself fewer shifts and pick up last-minute if you need to.
Nobody told me that burnout is a real thing. I had all these dysfunctional attending physicians around me whom I looked up to. They were depleted, empty bags of medical knowledge. I may have subconsciously modeled myself after some of these individuals.
The Compassion Outliers
I’m never gonna be a Denise Sur. She was a beast of a physician. She never got emotionally depleted. She ever seemed to be lacking any compassion.
These are the freaks of medicine who crowd the attention space. That’s like trying to be the next Amazon when all you want to do is to have a drop-shipping business.
The other group of outliers are the ones who put on a front. They make it seem as though nothing phases them. But they go home and drink themselves into a coma or beat their cat.
We can only deal with our own person – I sometimes can’t even do that. At least by assessing my compassion fatigue level I’ll know myself better. This should help me prevent full-on compassion fatigue.
Not Needing Income from Medicine
After no longer identifying with being a physician the next level is to not need the income from medicine. This adds an extra layer of protection from compassion fatigue.
When we become financially independent then we naturally search out what we love most about the kind of medicine we practice. The mundane day-to-day shit becomes a lot less important.
I push early retirement for healthcare professionals not only because it’s incredibly easy to achieve with our high incomes but also because it will make us enjoy medicine so much more.
If I’m being pissy with a patient now then I sense it right away. I slap my inner self and snap out of it, reminding myself that I don’t have to be here. Since I am here then I have to be the best physician for this patient regardless of their behavior or the situation.
Financial independence is a gradual process but it picks up steam quickly. Replacing a single recurrent expense with an income-producing asset is the first step.
An index fund which earns a 2% annual dividend yield can earn me $60/month on an ongoing basis if I invest $40k in it. That means I will have gotten rid of my cell phone expense forever.
Though not all ongoing expenses need to be covered, it’s helpful to cover the basics. I believe most medical professionals will find something else that they enjoy and that will produce them some income.