Practicing gratitude, especially when times are tough, is an essential component of clinical excellence.
I was recently asked to share what clinical excellence means to me as a physician, with the added challenge of answering in ten minutes or less!
Boiling this down to a few points required not a small degree of reflection. We can all speak at length about the technical details—the whats, whens, and hows of meeting quality metric goals, avoiding excessive testing, partnering with patients, et cetera—but pinning down the emotional “whys” of practicing medicine is more difficult.
As I waited for my turn to speak, several before me touched on the fact that feeling joy in one’s practice is essential to clinical excellence, but that burnout is common. A January 2018 article from Reuters notes that nearly two-thirds of physicians feel burned out, depressed, or both!
How to overcome burnout
To me, gratitude is essential. I recalled the story of receiving a small, deep red bouquet of roses from a patient last Christmas. This young person already had their hands full with two children, one with autism, and was suffering from depression. We had worked hard on improving symptoms and getting the children the services they needed.
The note that accompanied those flowers read,
“When I first came to see you, everything was gray. Thank you for helping me to see color again.”
What they couldn’t have known was that I was struggling with burnout. Increased administrative demands coupled with the end of my marriage and single parenting left me anticipating the worst before every appointment, easily frustrated with curveballs, and sometimes even resentful of my employers and patients.
I had recently attended a mindfulness workshop that discussed gratitude as a tool for dealing with frustration, and had been trying to apply this to my practice. My patient’s note represented a turning point for me. Not only was I grateful for the sentiment, but it also made me aware again of all the ways in which practicing medicine is a blessing. We have a level of intimacy and trust with our patients that’s hard to find in these days of social media. We have the chance to improve lives in meaningful and lasting ways. We are intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually fulfilled every day. How lucky we are to be doing what we do!
By focusing on the rewards of my job, my dissatisfaction decreases, and concern and compassion for my patients grows in the space where frustration used to live. This is not to say that I never get annoyed, or don’t wish the paperwork would Just. Go. Away. But I do feel more love for my life and for my patients every day. And patients are clearly more likely to receive excellent clinical care from providers who are emotionally resilient and empathetic to their needs. In this way that I feel that practicing gratitude, especially when times are tough, is an essential component of clinical excellence.