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Apr 9, 2020

Dr. Pennell talks with Dr. Daniel Richardson discuss physician burnout and the author’s curriculum designed to mitigate burnout and foster solidarity among fellows.

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Hello, and welcome to the latest JCO Oncology Practice podcast, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content and offering enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all recordings, including this one, at My name is Dr. Nate Pennell, medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic and consultant editor for the JCO OP.

Today, I'd like to talk about a topic that's at the front of many people's minds, burnout. With what seems like constant stress and increasing demands on our time, many clinicians are feeling increasingly exhausted, cynical, and like their work lacks meaning. These elements are part of a condition known as burnout. And it feels like everyone's feeling it to a greater or lesser extent these days. While employers and training programs are increasingly aware of the issue of burnout, what are they doing to reduce it or to prevent it from happening in the first place?

With me today to discuss this topic is Dr. Daniel Richardson, hematology/oncology fellow and AHRQ postdoctoral research fellow at the UNC Chapel Hill Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. We'll be discussing his and his colleagues' paper, "Development of an Art of Oncology Curriculum to Mitigate Burnout and Foster Solidarity among Hematology/Oncology Fellows," which is part of a special series at the JCO OP on physician wellness burnout and moral distress. Welcome, Daniel, and thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Thanks for having me. It's really a privilege to speak with you today. I'll start off just by noting my conflicts. I have no financial conflicts of interest to disclose. However, my institution was involved in the study that we'll be talking about.

All right, thanks for that. So burnout is something I think most physicians and other clinicians can relate to. But would you mind just kind of giving our listeners a little brief overview of what exactly is burnout in physicians and how big of a problem is this right now?

Sure. So burnout was first described really as a metaphor to talk about an extinguishing of a fire or smothering out of a fire. And it related to this loss of capacity that many feel to make a meaningful and lasting impact with one's life or career.

More recently, it's been further clarified to cover several domains of this initial concept, including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and loss of meaning or purpose at work. And burnout really has been shown to lead to profound of personal and professional consequences-- anxiety, depression, and in the professional realm, attrition among physicians and oncologists and decreased quality of care. And the problem is pretty pervasive, as most of us are aware. Our most recent studies show that nearly half of practicing oncologists are experiencing burnout and about a third of residents, fellows, and medical students even are experiencing burnout.

Yeah, this is what, I think, a lot of our listeners might be interested to hear about. There may be a conception out there that burnout is a function of time-- you know, being exposed to something over a long time maybe later in your career. But what you're saying is that this is something that people can start to experience almost immediately, even in medical school and during residency. And I find that really interesting, although potentially disturbing as well.

Yeah, I agree. And I think what we're seeing is probably the results of a larger change in our culture. We're seeing kind of a loss of sense of meaning and purpose and connectedness to the community in the larger culture. Increasingly, we're seeing that medical students, residents, and fellows are lacking a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in the broader community. And that's really playing out in their role as an oncologist as well.

So I'm curious what led you and your fellowship program to developing this kind of a curriculum to try to combat burnout.

Sure. Prior to medical school, I completed a master's degree in philosophy of religion and ethics. And it allowed me the opportunity to think a lot about virtue ethics and also the moral foundation of medicine. And virtue ethics is really focused on human flourishing and really claims that the path to human flourishing is developing character and virtues that can lead to that.

And so I thought a lot about who I was becoming as a medical student, who I was becoming as a physician in medical school and then into residency. During my first year of fellowship, I was thinking a lot about the culture of medicine and how I was developing in the midst of that. And I really became aware that there was a clear lack of direction on how to help fellows develop into oncologists that would be able to thrive in their careers.

We didn't really talk about calling. We didn't talk about purpose. We didn't talk about who we were becoming. We were being trained as oncologists with the right answers about treatment. But as one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, puts it, we were at risk of developing into oncologists without chests-- that is, without a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of what we did each day. It really kind of started with this bigger understanding that we were going through this big process, and we were becoming oncologists without really thinking about what that process was looking like and how that was happening.

Wow, I think that is-- that's fascinating. Well, in any case, since this led you to design the program, can you take me through the design of the Art of Oncology program that you designed? And what are you hoping to show as a result?

Sure so as I had mentioned, I was really thinking a lot about who we were becoming as oncologists. And so one of the first things that I thought about is, how can we foster a sense of meaning and purpose in our fellows. I thought that this was really a place where we are seeing a lot of burnout is that there is this lack of meaning and purpose among fellows and oncologists in general. And so we wanted to target that. So we landed on a curricular intervention that used narratives, really to promote a shared mental model of meaning and work, which all that really means is helping all of us have a discussion to understand where we are coming from, our experiences, and how we are being shaped in the midst of kind of caring for patients. And our hope in kind of starting from that point and developing a narrative model was really that we could help fellows understand where they sat in caring for patients, their calling in doing that, and then also their position as a part of a broader community that had a bigger vision for caring for patients as well.

So we decided that we would use personal and published stories, mostly about caring for cancer patients, to spark discussion, reflection, and then really a deeper understanding among fellows of this shared calling. And we had faculty or, often, patients come and share their story or one of the narratives in those sessions. We planned eight sessions throughout the year, which took place during the traditional didactic lecture times. And the narrative took place over the first 15 minutes or so. And then the point was really to foster this deeper discussion and reflection on meaning, identity formation, and moral development in medicine.

So a lot of this really was based, then, upon selecting the different essays and other pieces of literature that you were discussing. So how did you end up picking those?

That's a great question. And I think we wrestled with it a lot. I think initially, we, as a group, found those essays that were most meaningful to us. And we felt like they would really speak to the fellows. But as we thought about it more, we really wanted to collect them around a few themes. And as I've been talking about, I fundamentally believe that finding meaning in caring for suffering patients is essential to mitigating burnout. So this was kind of the primary theme that I focused on.

But we also, in the midst of the program, wanted to equip fellows with skills to foster their sense of purpose in medicine. So we had a session focused on cultivating virtues of resilience and self-care, as well as sessions on caring for dying patients. And we really understood that the experiences of most fellows were very hard, given the immense amount of suffering that they experience.

So our initial hope would be that really, this session and this program would be an avenue to redeem some of the suffering that the fellows were experiencing through their patients. We hoped that it would lead to a deepened sense of community or solidarity is the word I use in the paper, among our fellows, and that this sense of belonging in one's profession really becomes vital for the sustained success. And I was really hoping that this would be fostered in the program as well.

You had mentioned earlier about what you were hoping for. Although we knew that we wanted to target a reduction in burnout among fellows, we recognized that burnout is really a multifaceted concept. So we knew that a small pilot program would be unlikely to see a substantial improvement in burnout. But we wanted to really shoot our or our aim our intervention really at the roots of developing burnout over a career.

So how did you try to measure that? So I mean, first of all, I've got to say, this sounds amazing. And I could say it may have value just in and of itself, because it's such an interesting and cool concept. But as scientists and trying to study things, how would you measure this kind of improvement?

Yeah, so that is probably the fundamental challenge, to be honest. And I, first off, want to say, I 100% agree with you. I think it's a first principle of medicine that we need to, as a community, think deeply about how to care for patients well. And we need to help each other to thrive in medicine. So I don't know how you'd necessarily capture that on a scale.

There are well-developed burnout scales, the NBI being the most prominent. We worry a little bit about having our fellows go through extensive surveys in the curriculum. So we used a couple surrogates. So there are three one-item measures that we used at the beginning and then the end of the curriculum.

And then we really wanted to capture the experience of the program as well. So we had fellows fill out basically subjective surveys about their experience with the program. And then also, we captured their attendance in the program. Our aim was really to establish, first off, is this something that is possible to do, good fellowship programs do this. And then really, did fellows enjoy and participate in the program as well.

You mentioned about not wanting to put a bunch of surveys on top of people. And so one of the first things that occurred to me when I was reading this paper is, were you concerned when discussing adding this that fellowship curriculums are already quite busy and filled with lots of sessions and other duties and whether this might actually make their burdens worse by adding extra sessions and requirements?

Yeah, for sure. We didn't really know what to expect. And we didn't even know if the Fellows would show up and participate. There is fear within our culture of being vulnerable, of owning that the suffering of our patients is getting to us and that we need some help. And I was really afraid that fellows would feel like the sessions were cheesy or forced and that the fellows would be uncomfortable being honest in the sessions.

There is a perpetual concern about adding more into the lives of fellows that will lead to greater burnout. You know, it's the running joke about filling out a weekly 25-question burnout survey among our fellows. So we really wanted to design a program to limit the requirements. Fellows really just had to show up and participate. There is no required readings or homework.

And we limited a few didactic sessions that used to be in the place where the Heart of Oncology sessions were in order to make room in the schedule. And we tried hard to make the sessions adaptable to any environment so that it was really just having a narrative prompt, getting people who care for cancer patients together, and thinking deeply about some of these issues that was really at the heart of the program. So we tried to limit a lot of those extra requirements for the program.

Well, it sounds like you definitely thought about that and tried to make it as least burdensome as possible. And it sounds like you were able to do that. So tell me, what did you learn from this first year of the program?

Well, it was really fun at first. And so as a fellow myself, I was able to participate with the other fellows. And that was really wonderful. I had a great time with them and learned a lot about them and felt like it was really enriching for me.

We saw, really, that the fellows really enjoyed the curriculum as well. They really loved the opportunity to think more deeply about these issues and also to hear how their colleagues were wrestling with them and to dialogue about some of the issues that we often don't talk about. They felt it improved the sense of community among the fellows and helped with some of the daily challenges of dealing with the suffering of their patients.

They pointed to some practical skills that they took away from the sessions, including managing work-life balance, communicating bad news, and having a better understanding of the challenges faced by patients. Surprisingly, many of the sessions were really emotional for the fellows, where they were able to share their stories about losing patients or family members to cancer.

We didn't see a statistically significant improvement in burnout. And as I mentioned previously, this is a pilot intervention. So this is not wholly unexpected. As you mentioned prior as well, that with such positive comments from the fellows that the sessions were beneficial in and of themselves, and really that we would hope that there would be long-term benefit as well. I don't know if such programs to foster moral development would actually be expected to result in immediate improvements in burnout. So the goal was really to begin to cultivate the virtues that will have lasting impact over a career in medicine and not necessarily to impact the burnout that follows were experiencing in that moment.

So you are describing the first year in your paper here. So what are the next steps? And based on what you've learned, are you planning any changes?

Yeah, so Dr. Collichio and I sit on the ASH ASCO Milestones committee, which are working to develop some metrics to capture fellow well-being at each fellowship program. And so we are hopeful that these metrics begin to lay a foundation to expand the art of oncology programs and other fellowship programs. We've been in contact with other programs that are eager for such an intervention and to get it rolling. And so I welcome other fellowship programs to join in as well.

The ideal study design to test this intervention is a multi-institutional cluster randomized trial. But really, I think we're still at the nascent stages of the development of such interventions. So this will likely be something that will happen years from now. And again, I think we realize that while we want this intervention to really impact on burnout, we want the intervention to have something deeper in terms of developing the character of our fellows. And so rolling it out among fellowship programs is going to have benefit across the board.

So what changes are we making to the program? We're in the second year of the pilot. And we haven't had too many changes, apart from, again, limiting the amount of requirements that we have for the fellows. Last year, the fellows really loved having patients come and speak and share their stories and how they interacted with the health care community. So we increased the number of times that patients would be coming. And we started to have more of our senior oncologists come and share their journey in medicine, kind of a career perspective to the fellows, and allow them to really begin to build some mentoring relationships.

Well, Daniel, I think this sounds absolutely fantastic. I wish we had something like this when I was going through fellowship training. So Daniel, any closing thoughts before we wrap up?

I'd like to comment that programs like these are simply part of a larger whole. Much of the increase in burnout we are seeing in medicine, as I mentioned, is part of larger societal epidemic of the loss of meaning and purpose for individuals. I believe that the epidemic of burnout in medicine is not going to simply be reversed by programs, but rather by a deeper change in the culture.

As an oncology community, we need to recapture our calling of service to suffering patients. We need champions who can lead the way in this and serve as mentors for fellows on how to care for patients well and to model how to find joy in their careers despite the suffering and losses they experience. It is only by recapturing this deeper calling that we can inspire and train fellows to do the same. And I'm hopeful that programs like this one and other similar programs across the country to bring fellows together to think deeply about their calling, their personal calling, and then also their calling in the midst of the oncology community, will serve to do this as well.

So Daniel, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today.

Once again, this is such a privilege. Thanks so much for having me.

And until next time, thank you for listening to this JCO Oncology Practice podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. While you're there, be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode.

JCO Oncology Practice podcasts are just one of ASCO's many podcast programs. You can find all recordings at The full text of the paper is available online at backslash journal backslash JCO OP, posted in February 2020. This is Dr. Nate Pennell for the JCO Oncology Practice signing off.