One day not long after fellowship I lifted my head up for the first time in a long time. I realized that in that moment I had accomplished everything I had set out to do in medicine.
Many years earlier I realized I wanted to be an emergency physician, and more specifically, an EMS medical director of a 911 system. So after Harvard undergrad I attended Vanderbilt Medical School. I worked incredibly hard, did well on the boards, and secured a spot at a top-tier emergency medicine residency. For four more years I worked incredibly hard, did research, and everything else that was needed to get a coveted fellowship position with the Fire Department of New York. I was now double-boarded and a successful emergency physician and EMS medical director.
On paper things could not have been better, which is why I could not understand why I was also at the same time miserable. In reality, I was no longer able to physically recover between shifts, no matter how much rest or time off I had. Emotionally I no longer connected with patients, supposedly the most enjoyable part of my clinical practice. I no longer found my work challenging, my growth curve was flat. I spent every moment of every shift battling logistics and bureaucracy. I could not see how anything I was doing, either on an individual or systems level, was making a difference in peoples’ lives. At the same time, my relationships, health, and personal pursuits were suffering as well.
I did not know it, but I was burned out. So I did what physicians do best – I tried to diagnose and solve the problem. I saw my GP to be tested for endocrine disorders. I saw a sleep specialist. When no reversible physical cause was found I saw a psychiatrist. Things went on this way for a while until a chance conversation with a friend who worked in finance, who recommended an executive coach who specialized in burnout and fulfillment. The coach had never worked with a doctor before, but he was willing and I was desperate.
Without exaggeration the work was life changing. More than any other resource, it was the process of coaching and the skills of my coach that allowed me to turn my career around. The process was not a quick fix, and at times uncomfortable, but very effective and rewarding. Through coaching I was able to clarify what I really wanted moving forward, reconnect with and enhance the aspects of practicing medicine that I love, and find new ways of achieving better results with less stress and effort both at work and at home. As a result I was able to continue practicing medicine with renewed passion and, more importantly, with the level of enjoyment that I imagined having when I first decided to go to medical school.
But around me, I continued to watch as friends from medical school, co-residents, and colleagues struggled – with many ultimately leaving medicine. Knowing what coaching did for me I looked around, and found only a few coaches who specialize in physicians, and almost no doctors who had also trained as coaches and were doing this work.
The rest, as they say, is history. I subsequently trained through one of the best coaching programs in the country (IPEC), and I now coach individuals, physician groups, and healthcare executives. While I began this work to focus on burnout and fulfillment, I now work with clients on a wide range of issues and goals including leadership and performance, developing new career trajectories, portfolio careers, and leaving clinical medicine.
I truly believe that every physician deserves to close the gap between the life and career that they have and the one that they want, whether or not this includes continuing to practice clinical medicine. Physician coaching is a powerful tool for anyone willing to do the work.