Medical Director Burnout Too Often Comes With Territory

Medical directors “define who they are based on how much they have achieved,” points out Thomas J. DeLong, PhD, of Harvard Business School, one of the experts quoted in our cover story about medical director burnout. How is achievement measured? Sometimes, medical directors are hopelessly caught up in the business of managed care, a long way from doing the sorts of things that drew them into medicine in the first place.

“It’s like getting in a rut with nowhere to go,” says Abbie Leibowitz, MD, a former chief medical director at Aetna. “That is a bigger contributor to burnout than the stress. It’s not that the job is typically so overwhelming; it’s a much different level of stress than practicing medicine.”

If new and interesting challenges are part of the cure, then help is on the way, and one need look no further than our current issue. Medical directors (as well as pharmacy directors and other clinician executives at health plans) will need to decide what to do about new anti-obesity drugs, and how to improve rates for taking the vaccine for the human papillomavirus, which causes several cervical cancers.

Meanwhile, though, take care of yourself. Even though there’s no official diagnosis for burnout, it’s real. “If the depression or anxiety is intense, that would be a sign that the burnout might have precipitated a psychiatric disorder or be the consequence of a disorder that was not previously recognized,” says Philip R. Muskin, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and a distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

And “psychiatric disorders are …. not in the ether,” he adds. “They are not something wrong with your moral fiber. They should be respected in the way they are treated.”

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