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Success Story: T-Shirts Spread the Word that Burnout is Not the “Norm”

Based on an American Medical Association news article published April 18, 2019 and Sara Berg's interview with Gabe Charbonneau, MD, family physician, Stevensville, Montana.

Learn how one physician created “Fight Burnout” t-shirts to raise awareness of this crisis and show peer support for fellow physicians in every specialty.

What Was the Problem?

With so many physicians and organizations working to help fight physician burnout, Gabe Charbonneau, MD, hopes to amplify their voices. Dr Charbonneau's project aims to highlight physicians' impact on the fight against burnout. He wants to spread the word that burnout does not have to be an accepted norm.

Developing the Intervention

If you received a package in the mail with a t-shirt and a personal, handwritten thank-you note for the work you do, how would that make you feel? Odds are that it would brighten your day. That is the effect Dr Charbonneau hopes to have with his “Fight Burnout” shirts, which show a phoenix rising above the ashes with the Rod of Asclepius and “We rise above” written in Latin.

“Burnout is something that I think every primary care doctor has felt to some degree or another,” said Dr Charbonneau, a family physician in Stevensville, Montana. “I've felt it. But what bothered me the most was when I started to notice it in people I care about. This is especially true with my physician friends and my wife, who is also a family practice doctor.”

“We had a shared practice where I work and she actually left because of job burnout. She just had to do something different,” he added. “That's one of the most personal things for me.”

Creating something meaningful

“No one on their own can fix our problems, but together we can make a difference. That's the message I want it to portray,” said Dr Charbonneau of his effort.

He picked physicians and people whom he thought were doing something meaningful as recipients of the Fight Burnout t-shirt. For those doing something positive in the fight against burnout, he sent them a t-shirt accompanied with a thank-you card and a personal message.

“One of the things that's really critical is this concept of professional fulfillment,” which Dr Charbonneau described as “the anti-burnout.”

Based on the research of burnout pioneer Christina Maslach, PhD, he points out that professional fulfillment comes when physicians' values are aligned, when they have a strong sense of community, a sense of control over their working lives, sufficient rewards, a sense of fairness, and a reasonable workload.

“What I've been trying to do at an individual level when I talk to people is to say: Look, are there any ways that you can increase some of these markers of professional fulfillment? That's the antidote to burnout at the individual level.”

Gabe Charbonneau, MD

However, he believes that a lot of work needs to be done at an organizational level, or even at a societal and government level, which is a big part of his message.

“On social media, if someone is doing something that would improve professional fulfillment I try and promote that,” said Dr Charbonneau. “If someone has a technology project that is supposed to save time for doctors or make things easier and it really works, I will tweet that and point out that this particular project could help someone increase their sense of control and lead toward more reasonable workloads.”

A message he continues to hear from physicians is the importance of the patient-physician relationship, which is the reason why so many physicians feel burnout is so hard for them.

“The thing that we went to school for, which is to practice medicine and work with patients, seems to be taking a back seat to the administrative burden and the EHR,” said Dr. Charbonneau. “We've got to do something about that. I'm trying to do my little part to help. I know we can do better.

He continues to spread the word that “burnout doesn't have to be the accepted norm” and that everyone can “make a difference” in this fight to combat physician burnout. This conversation continues to be shared with the #FightBurnout hashtag.

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