Thursday, June 5, 2014

Coping with Patient Burnout

A Second Home for Many Chronically Ill Patients
There is a new kind of burnout that I fear the medical profession has failed to realize.  What about patient burnout?  We're always hearing concern about physician fatigue and quality of life--and that the medical system, its administrative burdens, and payment system has created an untenable situation for physicians. But what about how this impacts the people the health profession is intended to help and serve? Patients, especially those like many readers, who require constant care.

I'm almost hesitant to count the number of doctor appointments that I've had in the last month.  But it's somewhere around 15.  That means there were only 5 weekdays that I didn't find myself sitting in a waiting room often for more than a half hour, on an examining table,  and being poked or prodded. It's meant preparing for these appointments, commuting to them, and dealing with the stress of making medical decisions with my physician.  While I'm generally happy with the group of physicians that I've cultivated over the last few years, that doesn't mean that these appointments aren't somewhat stressful.  Questions of health are never to be taken lightly.  

And my job as patient extraordinaire does not end when I get home. Just last week, for example, my eye doctor prescribed new medications for a persistent infection I've been fighting for the last two months.  However, another physician had concerns about that choice.  That meant I needed to to get both of them to actually talk on the phone and figure this one out.  I wrote emails and called both offices to help make it happen.  It eventually did, but it took work and me being a pushy patient.  In the end, they both decided we could stick with the new regimen.  This process did take up a considerable amount of time and energy, and it was unsettling to start a new medication and then be told by another physician it should be immediately discontinued.  All in all, it was certainly stressful.

Beyond this, doctors and their staffs are not the only ones that have to deal with insurance companies and billing.  Patients do as well--and we often have to catch mistakes that are made my both.  Now, I don't want this post to turn into a list of rants and complaints.  Because the important question is how to cope with all the work we have to do as patients without feeling exasperated and overwhelmed.  I, for sure, don't have this down to a science by any means.  But when I do feel overwhelmed by the medical system I have some techniques that can help me feel me more grounded and that my only identity isn't that of a patient. 

My Survival Tips for Dealing with Patient Overload

1) Morning Meditation.  Meditation has many benefits for people with chronic illness and those without.  For me, just taking 10 minutes to breath clears my head and makes the day ahead feel less overwhelming.  When I meditate, I generally feel more focused and prepared when I walk into a doctors appointment and better able to cope with what lays ahead. 

2) Lists.  Lists help me with everything, especially keeping my healthcare organized.  If I write down everything I need to do in the morning to deal with my healthcare and pick the 2 or 3 that REALLY need to get done, it helps me prioritize and make my healthcare tasks seem finite as opposed to infinite.

3) Do one thing for you, but not related to your healthcare everyday.  Preferably something that you enjoy.  Even if it's just a phone call with a friend or family member, going for a walk outside for 15 minutes, or reading for half hour.  While it might sound trite, this really helps me stay connected to the non-patient part of my life.

4) Scheduling Appointments.  Figure out what kind of appointment schedule works for you and your emotional and physical well being.  Would you rather have a number of appointments crammed into one week or do you do better when they are spaced out?  If my health allows, I try to have no more than two doctors appointments in a week and like to make sure I have at least one "off" week every month where my routine can feel more regular. It's taken me a bit of experimentation to figure out that this adds more balance to my life. 

5) Accept that this is a marathon not a race.  Similar to accepting that chronic illness is a long term battle, so are all the parts of dealing with the healthcare system that come with it. I've learned that even if I try to take care of everything related to my health as perfectly as possible, new challenges will emerge.  I won't get a gold star by pushing and exhausting myself to be the perfect and most efficient patient.  Conserving physical and mental energy for the long haul is a priority.

6) Take a Patient Vacation when you can.  Recognize and celebrate the periods when you're health is more stable.  This doesn't mean neglect the important aspects of daily care like medication regimens. But we can celebrate these "better" times by allowing yourself to try something new or get back to a hobby or a gentle exercise routine that your health might have been a barrier to.

How do you deal with patient overload and frustration?   Please share your strategies. I would love to post them in an upcoming blog.

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