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  • Writer's picturePaul DeChant MD, MBA

Humanism in Healthcare Leadership – The Missing Link in Reducing Physician Burnout

There is a missing link in the current physician burnout debate – humanism in healthcare leadership.

For the past two years I’ve had the privilege of representing IBM Watson Health on the Gold Foundation Corporate Council, a group of healthcare organizations that support the Gold Foundation and its important mission to return humanism to healthcare.

The Arnold P. Gold Foundation was founded over 30 years ago when a pediatric neurologist at Columbia, Dr. Arnold P. Gold, became concerned about the erosion of the human connection between physicians and patients. When a medical student referred to a patient as “the brain tumor in 209”, Dr. Gold realized that changes in medicine were threatening the core of the profession. He worked with his health system’s leadership to establish a foundation to counteract this trend and keep doctors focused on what matters most – the physician-patient relationship.

A lot has changed in healthcare over the past 30 years, with many of those changes leading to the current epidemic of physician burnout. The problem now is not physicians who lack resilience. The problem is the clinical workplace which is full of barriers to physicians practicing humanistic care.

There are great opportunities, and much work to be done, to fix the clinical workplace. The just-published supplement the Annals of Family Medicine on “Lessons from Practice Transformation” addresses some of them. There are many other changes that make a difference as well, including those I’ve documented in prior blog posts.

We are at a point where the question is not, “What should we do to fix the clinical workplace?” The question is, “How do we do this as quickly and effectively as possible?”

A new dimension of humanism in healthcare

What we need is Humanism in Healthcare Leadership – a renewed human connection between C-suite leaders and front line physicians. If you follow any of the burnout threads on Twitter or LinkedIn, it becomes obvious that there is a great divide between most front line physicians and the C-suite leaders in most healthcare provider organizations. Dr. Robert Pearl has been focusing on burnout recently and had a great post on this on LinkedIn. He talks about the breakdown of mutual respect in the administrator-physician relationship.

Physicians are frustrated that C-suite leaders place increasing demands on performance improvement without understanding the challenges or providing effective support to help physicians achieve the performance goals.

C-suite leaders are frustrated that too many physicians aren’t “carrying their weight.” CEOs are struggling to keep the organization financially viable against multiple external threats, while physicians are cutting back on their schedules (if they have the opportunity) to try to regain some semblance of work life balance.

This impasse seems to be getting worse, with growing distrust and frustration for both sides.

It’s time for Humanism in Healthcare Leadership

What would Humanism in Healthcare Leadership look like? One of the most powerful examples comes from outside of healthcare. Bob Chapman is the CEO of Barry Wehmiller, a large equipment manufacturing firm that makes things like bottle washers for Budweiser. Yet he is one of the most humanistic CEOs on the planet.

Bob came to the realization that if he cared about the well-being of his employees to the same degree that he did for this close friends and family members, that his business would thrive, and the world would be a better place. It’s true, and well documented in his book, Everybody Matters The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your PEOPLE Like FAMILY, and further developed on his group’s website and podcast,

There are some examples in healthcare as well. I had lunch the other day with Jeffrey Pfeffer, PhD, a Stanford Business School professor and author of Dying for a Paycheck, also a worthy read on this issue of organizational and employee wellness. He shared with us the great work of Amir Dan Rubin, MBA who has changed corporate cultures at UCLA as COO, Stanford Healthcare as CEO, and is now doing the same at One Medical.

How Can the C-suite Promote Humanism in Healthcare Leadership?

It’s actually not that hard if you are willing to change. Which is not to say that personal change is easy. A library full of business and psychology books are written on the subject.

Let’s start with the C-suite, which has the most control over the change. You can become a driving force for Humanism in Healthcare Leadership by learning more about the processes and possibilities (reading the books above, as well as our book on Preventing Physician Burnout.)

A simple next step is to shadow physicians as they are seeing patients, to observe the reality of the challenges they face. Then listen to them, not in a quick conversation in a busy clinic, but over a meal where you have a chance to engage more deeply in a neutral setting.

From there you can begin to understand and fix the root causes of burnout. The benefits will surprise you, if you do this right. Not only will doctors complain less, so will the support staff. Patient care and satisfaction will improve. Your margin will increase.

Your don’t believe me? Reach out to me and I’ll be glad to share with you my experience as a CEO and a process that works.

What Role Do Physicians Play?

As a physician, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely wondering what I’ve been smoking. What I’m describing may sound like a fantasy that has no chance in your institution with your leadership.

Change can start with you. This is more challenging due to your overwork, lack of control, and the other drivers of burnout that you are suffering every day. One very simple thing to do is to invite your leaders to shadow you. You may not feel comfortable making that ask of the CEO, but do make the ask of a leader higher up the chain of command who you think will listen to you, like the CMO or your department chair. Their job is to help you, and they can carry the message further up the chain.

Fostering a Culture of Wellness

Humanism in Healthcare Leadership is at the core of pursuing one of the key components of the Stanford WellMD Professional Fulfillment Model, a Culture of Wellness. The other two are Personal Resilience and Efficiency of Practice. Humanism in Healthcare Leadership will ensure a robust Culture of Wellness and catalyze success in the other two realms.

I invite you to give it a try, and to share your experiences with Humanism in Healthcare Leadership.



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