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Bringing Joy Back into Medicine

illustration of a doctor putting a bandage on a broken heart

Illustration by Andre Da Loba

Medicine has always been a demanding career. Clinicians typically work long hours and give their all to help patients. In recent years, though, the profession has become even more demanding.

Technological advances, increasing regulation and an aging patient population with complex, chronic conditions have combined to increase the stress involved in being a clinician. Together, these factors are taking a toll on happiness and well-being.

Nationwide, more than four in 10 physicians have symptoms of burnout, according to a recently published survey. In some high-stress specialties, such as critical care and neurology, up to two-thirds of doctors are burned out. Burnout is never a good outcome, but it is particularly distressing in this context because most people who become clinicians do so because they are very passionate about their work in the first place.

The results of burnout are serious: They can include depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, and simply leaving the profession. Evidence indicates that other members of the health care team, including nurses and social workers, are also overburdened and exhausted. Biomedical researchers also face increasing pressure, as funding has flatlined or decreased, and competition for grants has risen.

Experts agree that any effective strategy must be systemic. After all, this is a systemic problem—it stems from a disconnect between the structure of health care and clinicians’ goals—and so we need to treat it on a large scale. To address this, some have proposed that health care systems and hospitals need a new position: a chief well-being officer, who would be responsible for overseeing employee satisfaction and experience.

I’m proud to say that in November, Johns Hopkins Medicine created such a position. Following the recommendation of our Joy in Medicine Task Force, we have established the Office of Well-Being. The director of this office, our first chief wellness officer, is Lee Daugherty Biddison. She has the right experience for the job: She is an expert in patient safety and vice chair for clinical affairs for the Department of Medicine, as well as a collaborating scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Working with her are Deborah Dang, who will focus on nurse well-being, and Richard Safeer, who will be the chief medical director for the office. This team will adopt a systemic approach to well-being, developing both institutional and individual approaches to improving job satisfaction.

Our goal is to make work at Johns Hopkins more meaningful and enjoyable for all employees, from surgeons to environmental service workers. We are already rolling out new approaches. In November, we began offering cutting-edge software that allows clinicians to dictate notes instead of writing them. This will allow them to spend more time interacting with patients and less time doing paperwork.

Obviously, there is much more to be done. We are focusing on four areas. We want to improve work culture to foster professional, productive and supportive work environments. We want to develop a coordinated system that helps doctors and other health care team members manage patients across all of our facilities. We are also working to improve opportunities for professional growth, advancement and recognition. And we will focus on approaches that allow for better work-life integration.

We realize that we have taken on a difficult task: We will have to modify some traditional ideas and practices, and that won’t be easy. But clinician well-being is too important for us to simply hope the problem gets better. We need to use data and analytics to translate ideas into long-term, measurable change to ensure that all of our employees work in a respectful, safe and healthy environment that supports well-being, growth and work-life balance.