Exercise, family time and engaging in academia: 6 spine, neurosurgeons share best practices to avoid burnout

Alan Condon - Updated   Print  | Email

Six spine and neurosurgeons provide advice on how to avoid burnout in their profession.

Ask Spine Surgeons 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.

Next week's question: What is one initiative your practice has undertaken that you're most proud of? 

Please send responses to Alan Condon at acondon@beckershealthcare.com by Wednesday, September 18, 5 p.m. CST.

Note: The following responses were edited for length and clarity.

Question: How do you ensure you stay on top of your game and avoid burnout?

Issada Thongtrangan, MD. Microspine (Phoenix): I have a special interest in physician burnout as I felt I could save the world and fix everyone when I was early in my career. 

Burnout, as defined by Maslach and Jackson in the Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual, is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced sense of personal accomplishment occurring among individuals who work in human services. It manifests as a drained, depleted feeling and/or a tendency to view one's patients, colleagues and coworkers in a detached and cynical manner. Affected individuals may come to resent the routine demands that come with one's primary work roles. 

Burned-out physicians can also suffer personal and professional consequences. Self-care is the key for me; I have to have time for myself and leave work at work. Spending quality time with family and loved ones is absolutely uplifting when I have a bad day.

Brian R. Gantwerker, MD. Founder of the Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: The term 'burnout' is being overused but its presence in healthcare and medicine is and has been ever-present. I think not taking a ton of calls, keeping things light and enjoyable in clinic and sticking to routines [can prevent burnout]. Also, keeping physically active — not all of us are superstar athletes — but at least go to the gym or bike when you are able. Once a quarter, my family and I take a long weekend and drive to a resort or relaxing area and just decompress. Every Saturday night, we do a fun family dinner out — usually my 6-year-old picks the place — and laugh and enjoy each other's company.  

Plas James, MD. Atlanta Spine Institute: The keys to staying on top of your game and avoiding burnout are to have outlets and stay physically fit. You have to be able to take care of your body nutrition-wise and physically. Physicians need to take their own advice and exercise three to five times a week, stay on a healthy diet, and take up hobbies so your life has diversity. Being balanced is key.

Scott Russo, MD. Orthopaedic Associates of Michigan (Grand Rapids): A spine surgeon stays on top of their game by having a clear purpose — one that is linked with their principles and those things they are passionate about. In addition, they need to keep themselves physically fit. A practice of mindfulness.  They should make time for family and for nature. Constantly read and travel to national centers to visit experts in your subspecialty area of interest.

Andrew Cordover, MD. Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center (Birmingham, Ala.): Physical fitness and working out remain paramount to continuing to have a successful practice. In addition, having a supportive wife and family certainly makes it easier to keep my priorities straight. In this field, there is a disincentive to take time off work. I realize the importance of this and take adequate vacation time to travel and spend time with my family. In addition, I try to involve myself in hobbies that require concentration and other activities that force my mind off work. Some of these have added personal risk, but the required engrossment forces me to not think about work for the required time.

Christian Zimmerman, MD. Saint Alphonsus Medical Group and SAHS Neuroscience Institute (Boise, Idaho): Certainly, apropos to provider engagement — especially specialists and their call requirements, patient regulatory issues and augmented time allotments. The past American Association of Neurological Surgeons survey of neurosurgeon respondents registered an astounding 70 percent versus 48 percent admitted burnout rate for nonacademic versus academic practitioners. Obviously, these are reckoning points, yet the same survey found that 'among neurosurgeons, many factors were found to lower the chances of burnout. In particular, neurosurgeons that are surgically productive, have children, feel intellectually stimulated, have a good life/career balance and are academic neurosurgeons were more likely to be satisfied with their career in neurosurgery.'

Yes, life balance and patient advocation make the most sense. Working in teams also seems to be another method to stave off this phenomenon. My past classmate and colleague, Dr. Heather Farley, FACEP, at Newark, Del.-based Christiana Care Health System allocated resource management and multiple team interactions as one of many positive methods to facilitate better wellness in our workplace.

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