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Pulling our lens backwards to move forward: an integrated approach to physician distress


The medical community has recently acknowledged physician stress as a leading issue for individual wellness and healthcare system functioning. Unprecedented levels of stress contribute to physician burnout, leaves of absence and early retirement. Although recommendations have been made, we continue to struggle with addressing stress. One challenge is a lack of a shared definition for what we mean by ‘stress’, which is a complex and idiosyncratic phenomenon that may be examined from a myriad of angles. As such, research on stress has traditionally taken a reductionist approach, parsing out one aspect to investigate, such as stress physiology. In the medical domain, we have traditionally underappreciated other dimensions of stress, including emotion and the role of the environmental and sociocultural context in which providers are embedded. Taking a complementary, holistic approach to stress and focusing on the composite, subjective individual experience may provide a deeper understanding of the phenomenon and help to illuminate paths towards wellness. In this review article, we first examine contributions from unidimensional approaches to stress, and then outline a complementary, integrated approach. We describe how complex phenomena have been tackled in other domains and discuss how holistic theory and the humanities may help in studying and addressing physician stress, with the ultimate goal of improving physician well-being and consequently patient care.

  • medical education
  • health care education
  • medical humanities

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