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Healing our healers: Stanford Medicine hires chief physician wellness officer



December 18, 2017
Area(s) of Interest: Physician Wellness 

By Ruthann Richter, Stanford University

Tait Shanafelt, M.D., a pioneer and nationally recognized expert in physician burnout, recently joined Stanford Medicine as its first chief wellness officer, leading the medical center’s pioneering physician wellness program.

His appointment makes Stanford the first academic medical center in the country to create a position of chief wellness officer at a time when physician burnout nationally has reached an all-time high. Dr. Shanafelt, whose clinical work and research focus on the treatment of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, will direct the WellMD Center at Stanford Medicine and serve as associate dean of the School of Medicine.

Leading the way

Since 2008, Dr. Shanafelt has overseen multiple national surveys that included more than 30,000 U.S. physicians and about 9,000 U.S. workers in other fields. These found increasing rates of burnout among doctors; in 2014, more than half of those surveyed were suffering from emotional exhaustion, loss of meaning in work or a sense of ineffectiveness and a lack of engagement with patients. Moreover, his studies have found that as physicians suffer, so do patients: Burnout has been found to contribute to physician errors, higher mortality among hospitalized patients and less compassionate care.

“I think most health care leaders now realize this is a threat to their organization, but there is also uncertainty that they can do anything effective to address it,” Dr. Shanafelt said. “They say, ‘It’s a national epidemic, what can we do?’ My experience has shown that an individual organization that is committed to this at the highest level of leadership and that invests in well-designed interventions can move the needle and run counter to the national trend of physician distress and burnout. I hope that the Stanford WellMD Center becomes a paragon that other medical centers want to emulate.”

Declining burnout rates at Mayo

In 2008, Dr. Shanafelt became the Mayo Clinic's director of the Department of Medicine Program on Physician Well-Being and launched an effort to address physician distress through programs promoting physician autonomy, efficiency, collegiality and a sense of community. While many were focused on strategies to make individual physicians more resilient, Dr. Shanafelt and his team focused on systems, the practice environment, organizational culture, and leadership. As a result, the absolute burnout rates among Mayo physicians declined 7 percent over two years, despite an 11 percent rise in the rate among physicians nationally.

Dr. Shanafelt will work in collaboration with his new colleagues at Stanford in building on its innovative WellMD Center, which was established in 2016. The center has engaged more than 200 physicians through programs focusing on peer support, stress reduction, and ways to cultivate compassion and resilience, as well as literature and a dinner series in which physicians explore the challenges and rewards of being a doctor.

Bryan Bohman, M.D., who served as WellMD’s interim director, said the WellMD team has worked closely with Dr. Shanafelt over the past year on projects of mutual interest.

“All of us at the center have been struck by Tait’s collaborative nature, his integrity, his warmth, his generosity of spirit and his work ethic,” said Dr. Bohman, who also serves as chief medical officer for Stanford’s University Healthcare Alliance. “Both at Mayo and nationally — in the physician wellness community — Tait is seen as an inspiring and strong leader. We couldn’t be happier that he will be guiding our future wellness work at Stanford.”

This article was excerpted with permission from Stanford Medicine News. Ruthann Richter is the director of media relations for the Stanford University School of Medicine Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

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