Physician burnout, depression, and suicide increasingly invade discussions within the medical field. Depression and suicide are more common among male and female physicians, with suicide rates 1.41 and 2.27 times greater than that of the general male and female populations, respectively. Though, the insults to the mental health of physicians begins much earlier in their career.
While the numbers may vary from study to study, some 28 percent of medical residents experience a major depressive episode during their training compared to 6 to 8 percent of the general population. These numbers are important, not only because suffering physicians are suffering humans in their own right, but also because this epidemic leads to poor patient care.
As a recent study out of the Stanford School of Medicine suggests, burnout and depression in physicians can lead to medical error and death. Many have tried to explain the causes of the epidemic, referencing everything from unmanageable workloads and work inefficiency, to lack of meaning in work and lack of work-life balance. Films are now being produced to shine light on the issue. In her TED talk “Why Doctors Kill Themselves,” Pamela Wible points to a medical school culture of hazing and bullying that continues into residency, along with a professional culture that hinders physicians from obtaining mental health treatment.
These factors certainly contribute to the epidemic, but when discussing physician suicide, we ignore the elephant in the room: capitalism. We are unable to recognize how the exploitation and alienation of physicians is integrally connected to this dominant economic system, but nothing could be more poignant, given in the state of the world today.
Ironically, the same destructive system that is driving physicians to extremes is also the main driver of the deterioration of health of the patients and populations, requiring patients to see physicians in the first place. The sooner we realize and confront our own exploitation, the sooner we can join in the fight to address the real driver of disease that is plaguing physicians and patients.
The System Outlined
Busy physicians may not have time to study how the world’s prevailing economic system functions, but doing so could benefit both our profession and the patients with whom we work. To briefly discuss, inside this system the working class that does not own the means of production is forced to sell its labor to an employer to survive.
A few corporations control most of the market for each of the commodities they produce. In these corporations, a very small sector of a board of directors and majority shareholders makes essentially all of the decisions on what to produce, where to produce and how to distribute profits. This puts the working class in a vulnerable position. With the ultimate goal of profit maximization, decisions are often made by the corporate class which are not in the best interest of workers and negatively affect the health of entire communities.
Outsourcing work, closing factories, creating poor working conditions to cut costs, polluting waterways and the environment–decision after decision may initially increase profits, but in the long term harms health. This harm to health can be more obvious, as when air and water are polluted, or more subtle, for example, when families are put under chronic stress–which eventually leads to various forms of illness– from poor workplace conditions or income insecurity secondary to factory closure and outsourcing.
In this system, certain “costs”–the health of families, and entire communities being destroyed–are “externalized.” This means the business itself does not pay for these costs of poor societal health, which are created secondary to decisions made by business executives to increase profits. Such decisions are made by a small number of wealthy, powerful individuals pursuing their interests for greater wealth and power accumulation at expense of all else.
As economists such as Thomas Piketty have shown by combing through economic records from as far back as the 18th century, capitalism inherently generates inequality, concentrating wealth into the hands of the few at expense of everyone else. Study after study shows us that socioeconomic inequality itself is detrimental to patient health and actually increases morbidity and mortality.
Despite the negative effects, the working class today is more productive than ever, while wages remain flat (or are sometimes even lower) and work hours continue to increase. Workers struggle to put food on the table and meet basic needs, while the ownership class continues to become richer. Workers are exploited and reduced to tools for industry, many times forced to do mundane tasks or assignments over and over. They are alienated, or separated from the control and the product of their labor, each day they go to work. Inside this system workers are ultimately reduced to mechanistic cogs producing profit for large corporations.
This combination of being overworked and lacking true meaning and fulfillment in the work being done, drives more and more throughout both the white and blue collar sectors into despair. As Johan Hari, shows in his recent work Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and Unexpected Solutions, workers become separated from loved ones and from things that bring them joy as they work multiple jobs for longer hours as they struggle to make ends meet.
This constant stress leads to anxiety, depression, and various other forms of disease. Meanwhile, all medicine has to offer for them are at best poor attempts–many times with questionable supporting data demonstrating efficacy– to numb the pain that much larger systemic structures continue to create.
Unfortunately, the corporate elite know no limits in this system. They continue to exploit the masses and drive more and more into poverty and desperation while concentrating wealth in ever fewer hands. In America today, the three wealthiest individuals own the same wealth as the entire bottom half of the population, more than 160 million individuals. In order to maintain this system, the elite must ensure that the members of the working class fight amongst themselves rather than direct their rage toward those who are benefiting off of the oppression of the masses.
The capitalist system, born from racism and white supremacy as highlighted in studies such as Edward Baptist’s The Half That Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, continues to separate members of the working class based on social constructs such as race. At the same time, through a multitude of mechanisms, the system creates a self-loathing, insecure public, driven to constant consumption, leading to the pollution of the earth and poisoning of community after community.
These various forms of structural violence are the true drivers of disease and suffering, of which the health care system sees the results, but has little to no ability to truly address. The health of the majority of the population deteriorates and the elites benefit. Capitalism’s need to endlessly expand and its effect on the earth, has literally lead some scientists to call for the designation of a new geologic era called the anthropocene to describe the effect humans have had on the earth.
Scientists now warn we have moved into the sixth great mass extinction of species seen in our world’s history. A new report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggests, “Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.” Meanwhile, a new U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warns us that humanity has only a dozen years to address global warming to avoid increasing droughts, floods, etc., which will inevitably lead to more poverty and illness.
Capitalism does not just threaten the health and well being of every human, but life on this earth as we know it. Capitalism operates as a terminal cancer, knowing no limits to its endless growth and consumption, destroying systems necessary to survival and threatening the continued existence of its host.
Medicine Has Not Escaped
What is outlined above are the underlying causes of the majority of disease and suffering. The prevailing economic system in the world today commodifies every aspect of life including health care. As a result, the health of the public, especially the US public, is subjected to a barrage of market mechanisms.
US medical professionals, while often paid more than the typical member of the working class, are still forced to operate inside of this system that places profits above patient health. We see how this system harms our patients, limiting availability of the care they need, but we tend to miss that we also are damaged by this same system.
As Howard Waitzkin and the “Working Group on Health Beyond Capitalism” state in the book, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health,” until the 1980s, doctors, for the most part, owned and/or controlled their means of production and conditions of practice.” This allowed them to have control over things such as their work hours and how much time to spend with patients. As the Working Group references, “loss of control over the conditions of work has caused much unhappiness and burnout in the profession”.
As other members of the proletariat, or working class, have experienced for years, doctors now no longer have control over their labor. Now corporations or other large institutions control such decisions. Physicians have become “proletarianized” and while not members of the traditional working class, they have become tools in the corporate wheel of profit production. This has left us with a health system parasitized by the capitalism that cares more about profit production than it does the care of human beings.
The medical industrial complex, made of a multitude of different institutions–hospital corporations, large insurance companies, or pharmaceutical and device corporations and, more specifically the corporate elite who control these corporations–ultimately governs a majority of the large scale, structural decisions that affect patient care. The elite in these institutions, just like other capitalist organizations, make decisions that affect the lives of the majority with little to no input from those who are affected by these decisions.
They govern the prices of drugs–often leading to the obscene drug prices–and how long a physician should be spending with his or her patients in the clinic. These organizations have the primary goal of maximizing profit (regardless of whether they bear the title of “for profit” or “non-profit”) above all else. Consequently, patient health really becomes secondary in this system.
The metastasis of capitalism’s perverse incentives to even the sector that claims to care for the health of human beings, has given us the ineffective, damaging system we have today. Since profit production is of prime importance, physicians–and really health care providers in general–must be trained to be efficient tools for profit, seeing more patients more quickly, knowing how to bill appropriately, etc.
These incentives limit a physician’s ability to do what he or she actually went into medicine (or should have) for: to help people. Physicians want to help their patients, but are simply not able to truly address patient suffering because addressing the causes, as highlighted above, are outside the scope of a profit based medical system.
To understand how exactly this system creates human tools for health care profit while in the process leaving them physically and mentally broken, we must delve into the medical education and training structure and analyze how medical providers are conditioned to accept their own exploitation.
Training in the Art of Being Exploited
Step 1: Medical School
Medical trainees in the US enter medical school at least generally claiming they have some interest in caring for other human beings. Unfortunately, little do they know they are entering a system designed to prime them for their own exploitation from the second their training begins—one could argue even well before that point–and subsequently throughout their residency training.
During medical school, students are forced to study innumerable hours while being told they have to “lay a good foundation” of knowledge for their future practice. The first 2 years in most medical schools are classroom based, where insurmountable amounts of information are thrown at students as they are told “this is just the way medicine is, get used to it.”
Unfortunately though, much of the information students spend their time studying–or more often mindlessly memorizing–will never be used when caring for patients. This information is absorbed, regurgitated on an exam, and then often forgotten. One thing students do begin to learn–if they hadn’t already through their undergraduate education or their grade school education prior–is to listen to authority figures’ demands if they would like to succeed.
Students have little influence on what they are being taught. Instead, they must accept what they are being told or they may not pass their next exam. Students who entered medicine eager and idealistic, hoping to help others, begin to slowly withdraw from their individual passions and interests simply because tests, rotation evaluations determined by the opinions of supervising providers students must impress, and board exams are deemed more important. They are taught that listening to authority figures at the expense of their own interests and passions, comes first and then they can try to pursue their interests if they have time. This obviously can affect the mood and morale of a training physician.
During their third year, medical students are forced to spend numerous hours in the hospital. They are also required to take “shelf exams” at the end of each rotation, which can often have a large impact on their overall rotation grade. Because slight differences in grades can affect residency opportunities, students spend free-time studying for these exams instead of participating in activities to maintain their own mental and physical well being. While the exam scores offer little insight into the type of a physician the student will become, they serve to add extra pressure on students and ensure that they spend little time actually thinking for themselves while they are out of the hospital.
During fourth year many students are expected to complete sub-internships in the fields they are are interested in going into for residency training. These sub-internships normally require students to work near their 80 hour work limit, congruous to work limits of residents (more on that shortly). Medical students often carry their own patient panels, write notes that can be co-signed, and can even pend medication orders to be approved. The main difference between them and an actual paid intern is that they do not get paid. Instead they must work to “impress” their superiors in hopes of obtaining a positive evaluation. Once again, students are taught that listening to and striving to impress authority is their ultimate goal.
After four years of indoctrination, in addition to a medical degree, most medical students are given one final parting gift on their way into residency: hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. This debt serves as a convenient way of pushing newly minted doctors into financial constriction when entering their residency.
No matter how they view their new employer or the field they have chosen, they know that they now have hundreds of thousands of dollars that they must find some way to pay back. This makes them much less likely to question or challenge authority in their new positions because doing so could impede completion of their training, sabotaging their career and only chance to escape debt. Along, with the inherent emotional stress of caring for sick patients, these financial difficulties can lead to depression, anxiety and a host of mental health issues in the newly minted physician.
Step 2: Residency
Once medical school graduates enter residency, they have already been primed for their inevitable exploitation, understanding that they need to take direction from authority, curtail their passions to make them more palatable to superiors, and most importantly, suppress any depression or anxiety they feel secondary to an ineffective, exploitative system. They now have few options–or are at least told so–other than to continue through residency. They know that to find themselves at this stage, they have made significant financial and emotional sacrifices, often losing connection with the people and things they love in order to fulfill education requirements.
Unfortunately, the exploitation of these newly minted doctors is just beginning. During training, residents are forced to work often 80 hours per week doing a large portion of the patient care in hospitals (not to mention the additional hours of preparation outside of hospital or clinic, which are not counted toward this 80 hour limit). Residents are salaried, so they provide a cheap, efficient source of labor for hospitals and clinics. Residents become physically and emotionally exhausted trying to care for maxed out patient loads effectively in understaffed hospitals. Work hours become normalized over time and residents simply expect to be working an unhealthy amount of time in the hospital or at least convince themselves that it is normal to maintain their own sanity. It is no wonder this situation plunges many, who are already at risk, into burnout and depression.
Throughout residency, residents do, admittedly, grow exponentially in their ability to care for patients and become independently functioning physicians. Though, there is another type of growth that occurs during these years, which is seldom discussed.
Residents are groomed to be efficient, effective profit producers once they enter the workforce. For example, over their time in residency, a large degree of emphasis is placed on residents meeting particular “quality measures” for the clinic or hospital settings. Training after training is spent ensuring residents understand how to properly bill and submit insurance claims. Residents learn how to see patients extremely quickly and complete entire patient visits within 15 minutes. As anyone who has even interacted with a health care provider can attest, this is not enough time to actually make any significant interpersonal connection with a patient.
Either during this visit or after, residents must also learn to input information into whichever electronic medical record their training center uses. As Matt Anderson notes in Health Care Under the Knife commenting on EMRs, “most were designed to capture billing and quality information, not facilitate clinical care.” Residents end up spending more time looking at a computer than they do connecting with a patient. In the inpatient setting, a hospitalized patient might only see their doctor for a few minutes each day. This is partially because the rest of the day is spent documenting a coordinating care inside of a completely nonsensical system to ensure hospitals will be able to cash in on patient hospital stays.
This puts individuals, who went into medicine to care for and make connections with patients, torn between still trying to achieve this goal and meeting designated “quality measures.” If they are not able to see patients fast enough in the clinic or inpatient hospital setting they may not be seen as “marketable” to employers. This is clearly an environment that can breed physical, mental, and emotional suffering in the exploited trainee.
Even while studies have shown these grueling hours put both patients and residents at risk, when it comes to actually addressing the problems highlighted above, the onus is consistently put on the provider to maintain “self care.” From the beginning of residency, different “mental health departments” speak with residents about the importance of maintaining self care and “balance,” while at the same time maintaining an exploitative system that overworks its employees and drives suffering. Residents are a cheap form of labor for hospitals or clinics, and actually addressing this problem at a systemic level would be too threatening to the profitable status quo.
How the system’s leaders speak about these work conditions is very telling. For example, in 2016 Dr. Janice Orlowski, the Chief Health Care Officer with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), stated:
The individual is going to go into a profession where their profession calls on them to work extended hours and to be available at unusual hours […] We need to train individuals who can learn to pace themselves, who can recognize when they have sleep deprivation or when they are stressed.
This is an interesting statement, coming from someone who should know the demands put on residents drastically limits their capacity to “pace themselves.” It is clear that there is much more concern for protecting a public image of medicine and hospital programs than there is for addressing the crisis of physician depression and suicide.
Step 3: Practicing Physicians
Finally, if not already burned out, the physician has escaped residency and now believes that he or she will be able to practice “however one wants.” Unfortunately, any overburdened physician–either fresh out of residency or seasoned–who has worked inside a busy hospital or clinic, can attest to feeling tired, overworked, and often unfulfilled, in part due to their lack of patient connection as they are rushed from patient to patient and progress note to progress note.
Again, citing Matt Anderson in the Health Care Under the Knife’s section “Becoming Employees: The Deprofessionalization and Emerging Social Class Position of Health Professionals,” concepts typically lauded again and again in the health sector–”value, efficiency, quality, and market discipline–are part of an ideology to justify corporate control over the work of physicians and other works providing health services.” He references Marx’s concept of alienation–the separation of worker’s control over his or her labor– and describes how more and more health care providers are separated from what they once truly loved about their work, and now must fill the primary role of profit producer and secondary role of health care provider. If this separation did not occur during residency, there is a good chance it will when outside of training working for an employer.
While practicing, providers are still attempting to treat patients who present with illnesses created by the much larger system of capitalist exploitation referenced above, but their training prior to starting independent practice in no way, shape, or form has actually prepared them to join the communities they serve in combating these larger oppressive systems. On the contrary, what they were taught was to keep their head down, survive, and make it through exploitative residency programs. They are in regular practice and know how to put in a billing code and attempt the near impossible task of making a true connection with someone in a 15 minute clinic visit, but have not remotely learned how to begin to resist a parasitic capitalist system damaging both their colleagues and their patients.
At the same time, even if a physician did want to step outside of traditional boundaries to help challenge the true socioeconomic and structural causes of disease highlighted above, the provider still has a massive amount of student loans constricting their decisions. They may also have started a family or accumulated other financial constraints during residency. This leaves them with few options and many find it easier to get back in the clinic, put their heads down, and tell themselves they are really helping to address patient health. When in reality, they have been indoctrinated into a system based on profit maximization and blunting of patient suffering at best.
This endless process of day after day in clinic, seeing little to no progress at a systemic level, can become frustrating and make one’s work seem futile. Imagine spending over 10 years in training–from college, through medical school, through residency–to find yourself in this position. It is no surprise that more and more physicians are burning out, and feeling so desperate, that harming oneself becomes a viable option to escape.
Recognizing One’s Exploitation and Fighting Back
Capitalism’s parasitic economic structure has infiltrated all aspects of our society, and medicine has not been spared. This results in physicians being trained and conditioned to be obedient profit producers above all else. It leads them to be alienated from their loved ones and from their true passions. Inside our healthcare system, physicians are separated from the things that truly brought them joy and fulfillment. Yet we still continue to question why physicians are killing themselves?
Some maintain hope that there will be action around these issues from residency administrations, hospital working groups, or any number of hierarchical bodies that govern medical education, graduate medical education, or our healthcare system in general. The reality is that these issues will never be solved by any large committees or “task forces” we currently have in place, which continually put the onus onto medical students, residents, and practicing physicians to develop more “resilience” inside of a system that is built to do the exact opposite.
Those who have made it to the top positions of organizations such as the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) or the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) are there because they will continue to support the status quo. As political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky discusses in reference to elite control of institutions, “an unstated but crucial premise is that the ‘responsible men’ achieve that exalted status by their service to authentic power, a fact of life that they will discover soon enough if they try to pursue an independent path.” These institutions will never consider the best interests of physicians or the patients they serve. Their leaders have been groomed to support the status quo. It is up to us to realize our exploitation and begin to fight against it.
Realizing this fact is easier said than done, as most physicians, due to the filtering mechanisms throughout our educational system, which typically lead to those from the upper classes securing seats in medical school, come from the exploitive classes themselves. Physicians are also paid more than a majority of other employees within our healthcare system such as nurses, technicians etc. They are conditioned to believe that they are somehow different or more important than the rest of the working staff when in reality all members are important in caring for the patient and all members are overworked and exploited by the same system.
Giving one member of an exploited group–in this case the physician–more benefits than others, helps to keep the fighting going between all groups as opposed to collaboration and organizing. We will be able to begin addressing the crisis of physician suicide once we, as physicians, accept that just as this capitalist system exploits our patients and coworkers, it is also exploiting us. And then we organize against it.
Whether it is consciously recognized or not, physicians specifically are also often boosted up with a false sense of elitism from the second they step into the field. This creates a blind spot for them being able to recognize their own suffering and exploitation and organize against it. They are given special white coats, which–besides becoming completely filthy after 80 hour work weeks–distinguish them from other hospital staff and distinguish themselves by the title of “doctor.”
While other staff members, such as nurses, actually have the collectivist mindset to organize against the damage the health care industrial complex causes to the patients they care for and even strike when necessary, physicians–especially those in the US–have been conditioned to believe they are too important to the system to do the same, even while that system is actively damaging them. Their administrators and peers say, “If we aren’t caring for patients, our patients will die.”
Those with a vested interest in maintaining the business as usual hold patients as hostages inside this system, guilting providers into accepting the status quo (inadequate care, inadequate access to care, medical errors, and crushing debt) with this rhetoric. It is despite the fact that physicians around the world have been able to organize and strike effectively while also continuing to provide absolutely necessary care.
Referencing Mark Ames’s 2005 book, Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond is useful for understanding this current phenomenon. In the book, Ames evaluates the mental anguish caused by Reagan era policies and analyzes how our capitalist system degrades and humiliates workers until they are pushed to harm themselves and others. In the following passage he speaks of how people can often deny their own exploitation until it is too late. He notes:
The middle class persistently denies its own unique pathos, irrationally clinging to an irrational way of measuring it, perhaps because if they did validate their own pain and injustice, it would be too unsettling–it would throw the entire world order into doubt. It is more comforting to believe they aren’t really suffering, to allocate all official pathos to the misery of other socioeconomic groups, and its more comforting to accuse those who disagree of being psychologically weak whiners. Despite its several hundred million strong demographic, the white bourgeoisie’s pain doesn’t officially count–it is too ashamed of itself to sympathize with its own suffering.
Until physicians are willing to accept the fact they they are being exploited by the same system that harms their patients, there will be no progress made in addressing physician depression and suicide. At that same time, until health care providers generally accept that it is our current capitalist system which puts profit production above the well being of every living thing on this planet–including themselves–we will not be able to effectively address true social and structural causes of disease and suffering.
Capitalism exploits, damages, and destroys us all. History shows us, large scale systemic change has never come from the beneficence of those in power and, frankly, it never will. As historian Howard Zinn writes speaking about public activism, the rights of the citizenry only come when “citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.”
As physicians, if we truly care about the well being of our coworkers and of our patients, we must begin to organize, unionize, and rebel inside our practices, residency programs, etc, resisting business as usual, and finding ways to threaten the profits of capitalists if we want to see systemic change. We must begin to organize with communities and populations resisting oppression from a parasitic capitalist system as physicians in the past have done with groups such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords.
Once physicians can begin to view the dynamics of our capitalist system more clearly–and view the dynamics of our healthcare system as just one microcosm of how capitalism harms us all–it will become clear what needs to be done. We must put down our fancy white coats and begin to organize with our fellow healthcare staff–and, more importantly, with our patients–against a system that exploits and damages us all. Only then will we be able to begin developing a new system that actually cares about both people and the planet.
• First published in Popular Resistance