Loneliness Among PhysiciansNov 06, 2023
According to a Harvard Business Review survey, doctors belong to one the of loneliest professions1. It is not surprising at all. When people in other professions move on after their undergraduate training or post-graduate training, most physicians are still in the midst of rigorous learning in their doctorate degree and residency training. Unless you have gone through the medical training, it is difficult for others to comprehend the tremendous impact of this journey in your physical, emotional and psychosocial well-being. The impact of the long hours of work, and sometimes irregular hours – including nights and weekends – limits interaction with your family and friends. Moreover, you are more prone to feeling lonely if you are single, divorced or childless.
Even when you have completed your training, physicians who practice clinical medicine are getting more isolated from one another. The long hours of work with generally less interactions than in the past. As the electronic health record (EHR) is the mainstay of patient documentation, most physicians are using the majority of their clinical time in charting. The patient care face-to-face time is often cut down to accommodate clinical documentation time. Yet many physicians are still going home long after hours or taking work home to do. The alone time with the computer is promoting the feeling of isolation and loneliness.
In addition, physicians requesting consultations from specialists are having less interaction with them. Many physicians are putting the consult requests electronically. Some may call the specialist’s office and leave a message. Some institutions actually utilize nurses to call in the consults – after the doctors put the consult order in the EHR.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk of loneliness among physicians is even higher. The prevalence of virtual meetings instead of in-person conferences is inadvertently promoting isolation and loneliness among physicians.
The impact of loneliness is enormous. Feeling isolated or lonely decreases job satisfaction. The feeling of lack of social or occupational support further fuels the feeling of loneliness. This in turn leads to increase in job turnover. Some people may choose to quit altogether. Loneliness affects performance at work negatively. It can decrease productivity and the quality of work.
Loneliness is also associated with increased risks of anxiety, depression, dementia, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and respiratory problems2,3,4,5. In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General stated that loneliness was equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Physicians are in a position being set up socially, probably not by choice, and at work to be easily isolated. Many people outside of medicine believe that you have it all – the financial stability, a full-time job, friends and family. They do not realize that many physicians are suffering from different degrees of stress, overwhelm and even burnout. The physical demand and the mental exhaustion caused by caring for patients takes a big toll on physicians’ well-being.
When you are feeling lonely, when you feel sad about being isolated, realize that it is not just you. The most important step is the awareness of how you are feeling. When you are aware of the depressing feeling of being alone, acknowledge it. Do not push that feeling away. Explore why you feel this way. What is your main thought that is generating this lonely feeling? Is it because you are thinking that no one understands what you are going through? Or is it because you feel as if there is no one to talk to?
No doubt that it will be helpful to have a better support system at the workplace. This may be an overhaul in many healthcare institutions. I believe that our voices matter. Change starts from something small. In the meantime, until we can see the impactful transformation in the work environment, reach out. Reach out to people close to you. Start from your family and close friends. They do not have to understand completely what you are going through – just know that they are here to support you. Sometimes even just picking up the phone and calling a friend may minimize your loneliness.
Reach out to a community, to support groups. There are communities of like-minded physicians. Many have suffered from some degree of burnout. Many have experienced or still experiencing the feeling of isolation, one way or another. Join a group (such as a Facebook physician group) that is supportive and understanding.
In times of feeling lonely, you may be so focused on things or events which cause you to feel lonely and not think about anything else. It is even more important to practice gratitude during this time. Gratitude helps you direct your attention to things you have, people around you and those you can lean on to. I am not saying that gratitude is the solution to everything; but it plays a very important role to maintain our well-being.
To all the physicians out there, if you are feeling lonely, you are not alone in this. As physicians, it is easier for us to understand what one another has gone through. Let us support one another. Let us lift one another up. As loneliness affects our well-being and indirectly our patients’ well-being, let us all have access to a community of like-minded physicians so that we can help one another to rise from loneliness, to have a sense of belonging and love.
- House JS, Landis KR, and Umberson D. Social relationships and health. Science 1988;241:540–545.
- Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Ronzi S, and Hanratty B. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: Systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart 102:1009–1016, 2016.
- Bu F, Philip K, Fancourt D. Social isolation and loneliness as risk factors for hospital admissions for respiratory disease among older adults. Thorax 2020;75:597-599.
- Brinkhues S, Dukers-Muijrers NHTM, Hoebe CJPA et al. Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus - the Maastricht study – BMC Public Health 17, 955 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
Are you ready to stop feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Are you ready to have more time to do what you want?