If I Betray These Words

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Thou must be like a promontory of the sea,” the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in “Meditations,” “against which, though the waves beat continually, yet it both itself stands and about it are those swelling waves stilled and quieted.” Though he intended these words to describe the practitioner of Stoicism, they also define the ideal disposition of a doctor. As the chaos of the hospital reigns, the physician tunes it out and focuses on helping the patient. Alas, this paradigm seems more at home in a bygone era than in our current medical system. Burnout now consumes American physicians, who are overworked, nonautonomous and adrift without help.

Such is the crisis facing physicians, according to the psychiatrist Wendy Dean and the hand surgeon Simon Talbot, co-founders of Moral Injury of Healthcare, a nonprofit focusing on distress in the healthcare workforce. In their new book, “If I Betray These Words: Moral Injury in Medicine and Why It’s So Hard for Clinicians to Put Patients First,” they state that today’s physicians are “seeing more patients, in less time, with fewer support staff,” and are “required to use technology that interfere[s] with rather than facilitate[s] care.” As a result, our healers feel exhausted, cynical, alienated and ineffective. However, the authors argue, “burnout” is a misnomer—it suggests that physicians lack resiliency. They claim physicians suffer from “moral injury” instead. This places the blame on the system, not the physicians.

Drs. Dean and Talbot appropriately fret about the scope of moral injury. Ten percent of doctors have thought about or attempted suicide. One in five U.S. healthcare workers have left the profession since 2020 and close to half of healthcare workers plan to leave their current jobs by 2025. Almost 50% of U.S. physicians experience burnout and there was a dramatic increase in burnout among U.S. physicians between 2020 and 2021. As a result of moral injury, physicians experience poorer physical and mental health, patients suffer from poorer health outcomes, and the medical system loses around $4.6 billion yearly.

The authors illustrate the ill effects of moral injury on individual physicans through a series of riveting and poignant vignettes. One particularly troubling chapter tells the story of Jay Neufeld, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist taking care of disabled children. Neufeld worked for St. Luke’s Hospital and Children’s Specialty Center in Boise, Idaho. To help keep the institution solvent, hospital administrators shortened his appointments and increased patient volume. As the authors describe, “when he overstayed his scheduled time with a patient, assistants would interrupt him and say, ‘Dr. Neufeld, your twenty minutes are up.’ ” Then one of his colleagues quit and Neufeld was the only physician left in his group. His request for more support went unanswered. When his contract came up for renewal, he faced a 30% salary cut. Subsequently, when the hospital’s lack of physician coverage nearly led to the death of a patient, Neufeld further pressed his supervisors. But it was in vain. Trapped, he eventually took his own life.

How did this happen? Each chapter and story emphasizes a similar conclusion: “No matter how [physicians] respond, they are all victims of a profit-generating machine that has taken over healthcare.” Profit and nonprofit hospitals, “motivated largely by revenue,” cut staff, increase physician work hours, hijack physician autonomy and silence any dissent with threats of termination. Caught between the oaths they took as medical students and the crushing pressures of corporate healthcare, doctors suffer moral injury.

While the authors identify an important concern—that current profit-seeking behavior stymies physicians and patients—such au courant criticisms of capitalism are incomplete in explaining moral injury. Profit motives in medicine have existed for decades and will likely always exist to a certain degree. In 1894 an editorial in the journal Medical Record argued that doctors saw hospital growth “critically, not to say coldly,” and resented the motive of hospitals to “get as much out of them with as little return as possible.”

Today, surveys of physicians provide a more comprehensive story. They identify other factors, some of which are mentioned by Drs. Dean and Talbot, as sources of moral injury: increased bureaucracy, lack of respect from staff, lack of respect from patients, and burgeoning government regulations. Not all of this relates to corporate greed; for instance, bureaucracy is always a side effect of government regulation. Indeed, our modern medical system now paradoxically combines the worst excesses of socialism (bureaucracy) and capitalism (greed). This contradictory yet sinewy co-existence is ultimately responsible for physician burnout. And it can only exist in a cultural environment confused about medicine’s purpose.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

2 thoughts on “If I Betray These Words”

  1. Considered buying it – interesting (if obvious) topic. But the ebook of a 301p book is priced at $15.49, so (not comparing content at all), my fiction, which is almost twice as long but priced at 2/3 this, cried out in pain and wouldn’t let me.

    The hardcover is priced at $29. No paperback.

    So another sale vanishes. Indies are not the villains here.

    • I just checked and discovered that the publisher of the book is an organization called, “Steerforth Press” whose motto is “Truth to Power Books.”

      I did a quick check on Amazon and the publisher’s top-selling book that’s been out for any period of time appears to have a US sales rank of #128,195.

      I doubt the two physicians who authored the book are considering giving up their day jobs.

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