Professor highlights “professional loneliness” among medical professionals

Dr. Richard P. Wenzel. (Photo courtesy of Je Cherry)

Walter Chidozie Anayanwu, Contributing Writer

The use of technology and automation of the medical industry has led to a decline in face-to-face interactions between physicians and their patients that creates a sense of “professional loneliness” among physicians, according to internal medicine professor Dr. Richard P. Wenzel.

In his article, RVU Medicine, Technology, and Physician Loneliness, Wenzel details the factors that contribute to physicians experiencing a “crisis in job satisfaction.”

A veteran in the medical field, Wenzel has experienced the growth and evolution of medicine in recent decades. While many of the advancements have been positive, he began to notice a shift in physician culture as a result of these changes.

“I’ve actually been thinking about this for a number of years,” he said, “from the time when I was doing a lot of clinical work and then more recently listening to my colleagues talk about their experiences in the hospital and the clinics.”

One issue, according to his article, is that among physicians, there is a sense that they have less time to really think and even less to spend with their patients. Some doctors rarely even have time to speak to their colleagues.

“When I think about making rounds on my patients 20 years ago, we would stop in the lab … talk to the microbiologist, and they always know more than they put in their report … [talking with them] stimulates you to think more,” he said. “You always learn more, plus you’re having a conversation with colleagues.”

According to an article published in the Journal of Internal Medicine by Colin P. West and his associates, “rates of burnout symptoms that have been associated with adverse effects on patients, the healthcare workforce, costs and physician health exceed 50 percent.” Wenzel makes this point in his article as well.

“A lot of physicians feel they have some burnout and many of them would not recommend medicine for their children, which is a pretty sad comment when you think about it, we mostly love what we do,” Wenzel said. “That excitement … we’d love to see it go on. Some of us [still] have it, but some of us, i think, are wearing out.”

Wenzel said today, a majority of physicians’ time is spent behind a computer. This results in a kind of isolation that deprives doctors, who are already committing themselves to hours of work daily, from the necessary human interaction that they need. This can also hinder the physician’s ability to work effectively.

“If you don’t have time to think, you don’t have time to imagine a better way to educate students, or a better way to work on your research project if you’re doing that, or even a better way to manage the patient,” he said.

Over the years, the business aspect of the medical field has taken on a larger role in health care facilities, leading to a prioritization of paperwork, billings and risk management.

Wenzel said physicians being involved in more than just the clinical “mission” of their institutions, which adds more tasks to their plate, contributes to their lack of satisfaction.

Most of these additional tasks do not serve the purpose of advancing the quality of healthcare, but are measures taken by medical institutions to protect their business interests.

“Administrations are worried about their bottom line. The [technology] is often geared, not towards the patient, not necessarily toward the physician, but for the hospital’s bottom line,” Wenzel said. “With any new introduction in technology, or devices … or new drugs, you should be thinking about the patient, not the bottom line.”

The provision of health care requires a human element that is quickly being erased by the introduction of and reliance on technology, Wenzel said. This, he said, will require physicians, medical administrators and others in the healthcare field to reflect on ways to reintroduce a sense of connection to the practice of medicine.

Wenzel pointed out a way to do so by allocating time and space for physicians to interact with the people they work with and patients they treat. As president of MCV physicians, Wenzel took steps toward making this change by creating a 24/7 faculty dining room, available to all employees.

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