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Embracing Creativity to Combat Burnout in Health Care

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Every day feels the same. Stuck in the grind, spinning around and around in the hamster wheel. See a patient, write the note, close the chart, on to the next. Then answer messages, refill prescriptions, fill out forms, and hide from the endless questions from my office staff about what I want to do for the patient who has called three times already that day. As a young attending, I felt stuck. Many of us feel stuck. 

Medicine is not at all what we thought we signed up for as medical students. Even as residents we were shielded from the monotonous daily grind. We had variety and a new set of goals every month. We worked with some of our best friends and had a senior resident or attending to guide us if we made a mistake. But being an attending is all the responsibility, all the charts, all day repeating the same thing. On and on.

Sure, there is variety with each individual patient, new co-workers, reprieve after a great vacation. But the job is the same. The same talk every time you prescribe certain medications. The same way you describe a certain illness. Rinse and repeat. Every day is the same.

Somewhere along the way when the honeymoon period ended and I realized that I was in charge of making my days interesting, I felt too burnt out to try to be creative. I had given up so much of my creative thinking in medical school and residency that I no longer even considered myself to be a creative person. I was too tired to write, too exhausted to read, and didn't have time for hobbies. But I craved something “colorful” in my day. I wanted a way to tap into something that made me unique, something that would create more energy in my clinical day. I was not feeling like my corporate medical practice particularly encouraged me to be different. Just see the patients and close your charts. Oh, and join a committee to decide how many meetings we have to attend to satisfy our requirement for “wellness.” I was graded on my productivity and not my personality. I was not rewarded by my reviews of how I actually cared for my patients. Patient outcomes as a rheumatologist are difficult to measure, so all I really had was the number of clinical encounters I saw each week, each month, each year. It was all so tedious.

As I began to address my burnout, I realized that I was the one who needed to decide to change if I wanted a different outcome. I had to think of ways to have more fun at work, to create projects of my own and use my creativity to get better results for my patients. I wanted to help them “see” the process of improving their health. I was tired of talking about statistics, and why a certain medication was better in a clinical trial. Sure, I needed to address risks and benefits, but I could do it in a way that was not so dull and rehearsed. I started explaining diseases and diagnoses with pictures and images; I began using handouts to explain medications we selected. I developed a social media page where I posted videos that I could refer my patients to so they could better understand topics I was addressing in their visit. I created a webpage that was accessible via QR code and included my “favorite” recommendations. I began using my creativity to change the way I approached medication adjustments, so that it fit the needs of each patient, rather than a template I was trying to replicate. And my patients started feeling better and thanking me more often. The dread of my day was lifted. My sense of accomplishment increased, and slowly I started to feel my burnout weighed a little less.

I also started allowing myself to be creative in other areas of my life. I once felt that creativity was only expressed in writing, art, music, acting, and theater. I did not identify myself as a creative person because I was not “creating” in one of these areas. In his book “Every Tool's a Hammer: Life Is What You Make It,” Adam Savage, the creator of “MythBusters,” describes all people as “makers” or creators of their vision. How we create things to work for us and improve our daily lives is just as much a creative expression as a beautiful watercolor painting or a sold-out Broadway show. Through this book, I realized that I can create a protocol for treating gout that yields less pain and better outcomes for my patients. I can create a prednisone taper that will work for even the most brittle diabetic. And I began to see my role as a physician more as a work of art rather than the daily grind. I began to use parenting tools to help my patients, and difficult interactions I had with patients to teach my children lessons about compassion and making mistakes. By lightening up at work, I felt my home life changing for the better. And I was happier both at work and at home too!

In the ever-evolving landscape of medicine, the notion of creativity and the art of medicine becomes more important the longer we are in practice. Time constraints on our visits can have a stifling aura, but with a little imagination, even a short encounter can be a vibrant interaction that sparks motivation for our ailing patients. Unlocking creative outlets both within the workspace and outside the exam room allows for more balance and use of both our scientific brains and our artistic sides. Creativity fosters the use of our imagination and patients appreciate that they are not treated the same as everyone else. Having a unique style of communicating a disease and treatment plan can yield more compliant and responsive patients. We can do these things without adding a ton of extra time to our day by reproducing handouts or pictures that our patients can take with them. Even audio recording a visit is a creative way to deliver advice to the patient’s family if they are not present for the actual encounter. The tools we have are endless. Just like creating a set for “MythBusters,” we can demonstrate that medicine can be fun and inventive. We are the “makers” of our ideal careers. We are capable of unleashing creativity at work in ways that speak to our souls and can greatly impact our patients. Less of the same. More of what makes us unique!

How do you get creative in medicine? Share in the comments.

Dr. Brittany Panico is a rheumatologist in Phoenix, AZ. She is a wife and mother of three awesome boys and enjoys hiking, being outdoors, traveling, and reading. She posts on @AZRheumDoc on Instagram and Brittany Panico, DO, on LinkedIn. Dr. Panico is a 2023–2024 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

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