Beating burnout: How 7 spine surgeons stay refreshed & recharged in their careers


Seven spine surgeons share their best advice for mitigating burnout.

Ask Spine Surgeon is a weekly series of questions posed to spine surgeons around the country about clinical, business and policy issues affecting spine care. We invite all spine surgeon and specialist responses.

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Question: What are some of your tips for avoiding physician burnout?


Jeffrey C. Wang, MD. Co-Director of the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC (Los Angeles): I think this is really a life lesson, in that people can feel burnout in any situation or occupation. I think the key for physicians is to do the things you enjoy in your practice and avoid having it turn into doing things you do not enjoy. You also need to stay on top of novel developments so that your practice continues to be contemporary, up-to-date and evolving with time. This keeps your practice fresh and changing, which I think helps avoid a constant routine.


On a personal side, I recommend trying to connect with your patients. If you treat each one as an individual, even if they have similar problems, their individuality will keep the treatment of that particular patient a developing relationship, which never grows old. I believe physicians should also talk with their friends, partners and their families so that they find ways to prevent burnout.


Richard Kube, MD. Founder and CEO of Prairie Spine & Pain Institute (Peoria, Ill.): Even a rapidly evolving specialty like spine surgery can involve burnout. Our profession involves many frustrations like insurance carriers, federal regulations and other countless bureaucratic tasks. You must always take time to remember what brought you into the profession in the first place. Get involved in teaching others and learning new techniques. This will help to keep things fresh. Also, make time for family and outside hobbies. We all need lives outside of our work.


J. Brian Gill, MD, MBA. Nebraska Spine Hospital (Omaha): Be sure to take time for yourself. I have found that I need a slight break from the action about every three to four months. So I will take a long weekend and get away. I have found that I need that time to recharge. If I am away, then I am not tempted to go into the office or check email, etcetera.  


Brian R. Gantwerker, MD. Founder of the Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: If I have one thing I have to work on its letting work stay at work. As I have been working on this, I have been going to the gym more. But focusing on being in the moment with my son has been the most rewarding. He loves watching the airplanes take off at the local airport. We have adventures together and it gives my wife a deserved break. Family and friends help me rethread my burnout buffer. We have friends over at the house and enjoy a cookout and just being.


Vladimir Sinkov, MD. Spine Surgeon at New Hampshire Orthopaedic Center (Nashua): First of all, make sure you got into medicine for the right reasons. My main satisfaction from this career comes from the ability to restore my patient's function and help with their pain and disability. All the "bad" parts of the job — paperwork, dealing with insurers, constant threat of litigation — become worth it when you see a grateful patient get their life back because of the surgery you performed. With that said, a physician should also have interests outside of work that let them unwind and relax. For me it is my family, sports and the outdoors.


Kern Singh, MD. Co-Director of Minimally Invasive Spine Institute at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush (Chicago): I avoid burnout by focusing on providing the best care to my patients I possibly can. This keeps me motivated to work hard and to continue seeking new answers and ideas within the field of spine surgery. I also make sure to remain balanced by spending time with family and doing other things I enjoy as much as possible. This allows me to return to work refreshed and recharged day after day.    


Zafar Khan, MD. Co-Director of the Robotic Spine Institute at Coastline Orthopaedic Associates (Fountain Valley, Calif.): I think the key is taking time for yourself and your family. That may mean taking up a hobby that gives you passion or just spending time with those you care about. This advice is probably true for all high-demand professions. 


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