He looked so familiar ... yes, it was Harry! I was boarding a van to the airport and he was the driver. The name on the pocket of his uniform shirt said "Doc." Harry could see the slack-jawed look on my face.
"I just plain burned out," he said. "The low reimbursement, the staff problems, wrestling with insurance companies, all that stuff – it finally got to me."
Harry went on to tell me he did have some regrets, but he was 62 years old, and had just enough savings and new Social Security income to pay the bills. Driving the van gave him some "pocket change" and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
The rumor was he walked out of his office in the middle of taking a new patient's history. The patient apparently was whining about how he couldn't afford the four chiropractic visits Harry had recommended. So Harry snapped and walked.
I had known Harry since I came to town to practice. He was one of the first DCs I met. I served on state association committees with him. He had been a chiropractic leader in our state, and now he was driving a van. It was spooky.
Anyone can (and perhaps should) dream of reinventing one's self. There is an old joke I vaguely remember: "When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a chemical engineer. Now that I'm an adult, I want to be a cowboy!" My experience with physicians, is that they seem especially prone to "What If" dreaming.
According to Medscape's Family Physician Compensation Report 2013, 42 percent of doctors say they would not have chosen their current specialty. This is especially acute among primary care physicians, since about 80 percent of medical school graduates go into specialties, leaving family, internal and pediatric medical grads in the more modestly paid 20 percent. That may be why the survey showed a smashing 62 percent of family physicians reported they wished they had chosen a career other than medicine!
Medscape did another survey, the Physician Lifestyle Report 2013, concerning physicians' assessment of their degree of being "burned out," defined as having one of the following: loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, or a low sense of personal achievement. This might describe the angst of many human endeavors, but seems especially pertinent to any health professional poised over a patient with a syringe or scalpel. According to the survey, 45.8 percent of physicians admitted to experiencing at least one symptom of burnout.
I don't want my doctor to be depressed, cynical and lackadaisical; or who secretly wishes they were an archaeologist! In choosing a physician, do we really need to first have them complete a psychological questionnaire in order to feel safe? "Dr. Mengele, before you check my prostate, would you kindly answer a few lifestyle questions for me?"
We chiropractors are a diverse and multitalented lot. Is it any wonder we too are prone to conjure up the "What-if's" of life? Some of us find growth and challenge within the profession, such as taking postgraduate courses, specializing or opening a second or "satellite" office (don't do it!). But a DC does not need to be depressed to wonder what else is out there.
I knew one young doc who always seemed to be distracted. At chiropractic gatherings, when a small group of us were standing around talking shop, he would be talking about anything else. I heard he finally drifted out of practice and started a blues band called "Atlas Shrugged and the Spine Chillers."
Then there is the flip side of burnout. I heard a story about a chiropractor who literally won the state lottery and all the money he could ever need. But the next day, he was back in the office, treating patients. The local small-town newspaper quoted him as saying, "This is what I do, and these patients are my friends. I might never get to talk much with them again if I stop practicing."
That might have been true, but I couldn't help but wonder. If it were me who'd won, I might have bought a coffee shop instead. Chatting with a few of my patients while I lounge in a comfy chair seems preferable to trying to talk with them while performing a drop adjustment on their sacroiliac.
There is another old joke; the version I remember has a cardiologist calling a plumber late at night to stop the water heater from gushing. The plumber shows up, goes into the basement, and in 15 minutes comes upstairs with a bill for the doctor. The doc stares at the bill and finally says, "This is highway robbery! I can't believe you can charge me this much for a 15-minute service, even though it was an emergency! I'm a cardiologist and I don't make this much money per hour!
The plumber replies, "I know. I didn't make that much when I was a cardiologist, either!"
Author's Note: By the way, "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," by Hoagy Carmichael, was a Top 40 hit for 17 weeks back in 1945.
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