On the Humanity of Physicians

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When a patient and their family enter the Emergency Department, they want desperately to believe that the doctors they are placing their trust in will know exactly what to do and will execute any necessary medical care flawlessly. We want this, too. Our patients and their families want us to have all the answers, to be able to solve any problem. They want us to be able to do anything. And so there exists the idea of the superhuman physician, one that can stay sharp and skillful on precious little food and sleep, one that foregoes her own health and safety for that of her patients.

Even outside of this idealized version of what a physician can and should be, the American medical system we work within requires that we regularly work unsustainable hours and compartmentalize any emotional stress the work engenders.

But doctors are human.

We are fallible human beings.

We get tired, hungry, lonely, sad, scared, depressed.

Too often, we go without adequate rest and nourishment in an attempt to be everything to everyone. In the process, our own lives suffer. Our health suffers. Our relationships suffer. We spend our careers, day in and day out, in intense, high-pressure work environments in which talking about our own health and emotional life is often viewed as a sign of weakness. 

It is estimated that we lose a doctor a day to suicide, between 300 and 400 doctors a year.

We are physicians.

But we are humans first.

We are vulnerable to burnout and depression. We are vulnerable to suicide.

We must accept and say, loudly, doctors are human. The care we have for our patients, we must learn to extend to ourselves. We must do away with the idea that physicians are superhuman. We must find a new system, a better system, to work within, one that doesn’t demand that we be superhuman. We must care for ourselves and each other in earnest recognition of our humanity.

Tracy Sanson