Physician burnout is not new news. Recent studies show 51% of physicians have experienced some degree of burnout1, and the impact is profound – for physicians, patients, and the public.

To date, burnout has been addressed as a chronic stress problem,2 and interventions have fallen short of the mark. Approaching burnout instead as a brain health problem may help truly address both the symptoms and the underlying culture contributing to burnout.

Brain health is usually noticed only in its absence, when caused by disease, injury or psychological issues. Burnout demonstrates all the markers of reduced brain health, as the neural and cognitive effects of chronic stress associated with it are well documented. These include a hyperactive amygdala, reduced neuronal activity in the frontal lobe (critical for problem-solving and decision making), and cell death in the hippocampus, which controls new learning and memory.3

Individual intervention is needed for each physician to mitigate brain health decline. Studies on interventions have been biased toward meditation and mindfulness, communication, education and cognitive behavioral therapy. We recommend a holistic approach to include these along with sleep management, exercise, and cognitive training focused on executive functions such as goal setting, decision making, emotional regulation and problem solving. A number of studies show the neural, cognitive and psychological benefits of these interventions, although more is needed to specifically measure the impact among medical practitioners.

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Published on Becker’s Hospital Review May 29, 2018