Reflecting on the Research: How Do You Tell the Story of Burnout?


My dad was in practice for almost 30 years before he took his own life.

My colleague committed suicide last month. The pressure on us is just too much right now.

The depression set in during residency. It’s background noise now, but it’s always there.

Two months ago, Primary Care Progress began a research project to understand the attitudes and concerns of individuals with whom we work — the alumni, practitioners, and students in our network. It was a straightforward assignment: develop an interview guide, release a call for participation, spend an hour chatting, and aggregate answers. We weren’t entirely sure how we’d use the resulting data — from updating our courses to shifting our language — but we knew that we had 8,000 names in a database that we needed to understand.

Within a few conversations, the enormity of our task was clear. This couldn’t just be a market research project to update our collateral; there was something truly powerful in this work.

Each of our qualitative interviews begins the same. How did you get into this work? What skills make a good healthcare leader? What are your biggest daily challenges?

It’s intimate, this question, and I wonder how I’d respond if posed in reverse. We listen, write meticulous notes, and engage, often veering off script to dive deeper and learn more.

I don’t know who to talk to when things are especially difficult.

I know I’ll burn out, I just don’t know when.

I need a community.

Now, after dozens of interviews, I’m struck by this question of what to do with this powerful information. How do we tell these stories? Or do we? Do we paint the metanarrative — the big, daunting, intractable tale of burnout and isolation — through data points? Do we tell each individual story, knowing that there’s an endless supply of anecdotes about how the system is wearing down and driving out our very best clinicians? It’s easy to fear that, in doing so, audiences will become weary and calloused with each new vignette.

But part of me says that we have to keep telling their stories.

It’s not enough to say that more than half of physicians are burning out. One-third show signs of depression. Suicide is the leading cause of death among male medical residents.

We have to share their names.

This research project was intended to help our team walk away with insight and data. Instead, we’re not — walking away, that is. We’ll be extending this work into the coming months to make sure we do capture the stories. Each and every one of them.

Elizabeth Métraux

Senior Advisor for Thought Leadership at PCP, Elizabeth regularly speaks and writes on the art, science, and power of language, as well as performs as a storyteller in the Boston area.

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