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Physician Accountability for Wellness in Today’s America

This essay won Medical Student Category third place in our second annual essay contest “Healthy and Happy doctors provide better care: define barriers and solutions to physician wellness.”

The rapidly growing numbers of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity in the United States are startling. With the rising number of Americans with so many medical co-morbidities, the issues of mental health and depression related to these illnesses cannot be ignored. These issues are not isolated to our patient population – they affect physicians as well.

As physicians, we encourage our patients to follow a healthy lifestyle. In general, this means following a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and getting enough sleep. To me, this entails addressing your physical and mental health. In the medical field, do most of us even do this ourselves? Easier said than done, but I believe in practicing what I preach. As physicians, we need to help each other find solutions to our own health problems in order to better serve our patients.

The barriers to physician wellness within an American culture focused on convenience are easy to find. It is easy to say you “don’t have time” to cook, so you eat out. It is also easy to say you “don’t have time” to work out, so you don’t. This is something within American culture that is imperative to change. As a physician, if patients were to ask me about my exercise, diet, or sleep habits, I think I should be able to give them an honest answer that would help them lead healthier lives themselves.

Encourage your peers and coworkers to adopt habits that make you feel happier and healthier – habits that help you find time to exercise and eat healthy with a busy schedule. Go beyond that – encourage them to be active and healthy with you! Diet, sleep, and exercise are all interconnected and affect each other. It is crucial to maintain healthy habits in all three simultaneously.

For me, making most of my meals makes me happier because I am spending less money and I am eating healthier foods. I may spend as much time making my meal as I would in a line or restaurant buying it. I see making a meal as a way to relieve stress with a creative outlet. It can be somewhat isolating at times – I have friends who bond over buying lunch on a daily basis and I’m the one with a lunchbox from home. However, I surround myself with people who also enjoy cooking, eating healthy, and saving money, and we connect over this.

In order to make the early hours of a work schedule not as bad, it helps to wake up around the same time every day – even on days off. This allows for time to accomplish tasks or even spend the day doing something you enjoy, benefiting your psychological health. The hours of a physician have the propensity to change, especially during residency training. For the most part, it is possible to stick to consistent sleep/wake cycles. I find satisfaction in these aspects of my life – keeping consistent sleep cycles and being financially judicious with my lifestyle. I surround myself with people who share my values to not feel isolated with my lifestyle choices. As human beings, it is critical to have a healthy support network we can rely on. We need to ensure our patients have the same.

For the average physician (or the average American) with a busy lifestyle, walking and running are great exercise options. Running and walking are free, efficient, and can be done at anytime (and with friends or family). It’s great to start the day with a workout to get moving, because it’s easy to skip over at the end of a long day. For some of my peers, it’s easier to for them workout at the end of their day. Whatever your preference, it is critical to schedule time for yourself. This process is restorative spiritually, physically, and mentally. As physicians, it’s easy to overlook these basic tenants of overall health.

This self-restoration process ultimately helps maintain healthy relationships in your life. Be kind to yourself, and take care of the one body you have. Be kind to your family, even if there is stress at work. Be kind to your patients and coworkers, even if there is stress at home. Finding our own ways to de-stress is important for the interactions with people in our lives. This is the foundation of maintaining strong support networks, and ultimately helps us better care for our patients.

In addition to helping care for our patients, we also need to help care for each other. If a coworker or peer seems stressed, reach out to them. The increasing rates of physician suicide are startling. This spans across medical students, residents, and faculty alike. We live in an era of physician burnout and mental health issues. As physicians, we need to recognize when our peers are not at their happiest or healthiest, and know when to reach out. We also need to cognizant of when our patients need help, and be comfortable talking to them about getting help. In addition to holding our patients accountable, we also need to hold ourselves accountable.

Undoubtedly, many physicians are able to find their own barriers and solutions in maintaining their own health and overall wellbeing. This makes it easier for us to identify those barriers, and possible solutions in our patients. The solutions to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and mental health in the United States start with us as physicians.

About the Author
Amanda Pursell is originally from Louisville, Kentucky. She completed her undergraduate education at the Western Kentucky University and is currently a fourth year medical student at the University of Kentucky. She enjoys running and hiking.

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