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Help for Stressed Physicians

New wellness committee an informal resource for members By Daniel H. Angres, MD

Medicine has become a highly stressful occupation, albeit one with many rewards. Stress takes a tremendous toll, increasing physicians’ risk of psychiatric disorders, addiction, and stress-related medical illnesses. To compensate, many physicians are working longer hours, which only compounds these issues.

The risk of suicide in physicians is substantial. Each year, 400 or so physicians kill themselves. This rate is higher in physicians than for any other profession and may be even higher because of under-reporting by sympathetic colleagues.

Because physicians perceive themselves as healers and authority figures, they may often feel invulnerable to the problems they diagnose or observe in their patients. Reluctant to seek help due to denial or fear, they often attempt to treat themselves or garner “curbside consults.” Additionally, physicians can be extremely defensive about interventions that may pose a threat to their license, stigmatize them, or threaten their ability to practice.

Historically, addiction has been the most prevalent issue targeted for identification and treatment. Comprehensive programs specializing in treating health professionals have contributed to excellent abstinence rates and responsible transitions to the workplace. These programs allow individuals to bond with a peer group in which they feel understood. A large component of healing is connecting with others to break the cycle of isolation and shame that is so pervasive in addiction. This approach has outstanding abstinence rates of more than 75% for health professionals treated in specialized programs and monitored for five years in Physician Health Programs (PHPs). Of those who relapsed, most had minor “slips” that did not cause workplace interference. The problem is that too often, “healers” do not get help when they need it.

The identification, support and monitoring of physicians who suffer from real or potential impairment has evolved substantially in the past few decades. A climate of openness, compassion, and accountability has assisted both physicians and patients. And now, the Chicago Medical Society is forming a Wellness Committee that will have approximately ten physician members from different disciplines. Members will be chosen based on their personal or professional experience with stress reduction strategies. Questions for the committee might typically include, “How can I balance work and home better?” or “I seem to be angrier and more fatigued than normal—what can I do?” As opposed to committees sponsored by hospitals or state medical societies that deal with intervention, the CMS Physician Wellness Committee will be an informal resource for members.

To learn more about serving on the committee or to submit a confidential question, please contact Dr. Angres directly. Questions will be shared anonymously with other committee members for feedback. All questions will be answered and some will be featured in a Q&A section of Chicago Medicine. The committee will also hold quarterly conference calls and in-person meetings. Dr. Angres can be reached at

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