“Physician Heal Thyself”- Luke 4:23
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have all heard this phrase “Physician heal thyself” but what does this have to do with the New Year? In our current healthcare setting with rampant levels of physician burnout,[i] instead of some great New Years resolution, perhaps it is time we start the year taking care of ourselves!
Jesus referred to the proverb of “Physician heal thyself” when he was in Nazareth speaking in the synagogue.[ii] Nazareth was his home town and he was speaking to an audience familiar with him simply as a boy growing up as Joseph’s son. By using this proverb, Jesus was acknowledging that this crowd wanted proof of his credentials to believe his teachings.
“Physician heal thyself” refers to a need for physicians to cure their own ailments before patients feel the confidence to be healed. None of us want to be coughing on a patient and at the same time counsel the patient how to stop their cough. On a deeper level however, it speaks to a need for this crowd who knew Jesus only as a local boy, to show proof of his capabilities before they could believe he could heal themselves or others.
As licensed providers and Board Certified Physicians working in respected medical environments, our credentials usually provide sufficient proof to our patients that we are not only capable of diagnosing and assisting with healing but also capable of providing compassionate care. My challenge however for the New Year- is to take a look at yourself and start providing yourself the same healing and compassion you provide for your patients.
I know you are familiar with the high rate of burnout among physicians, the high suicide rates as well as just the daily stressors of patient care, the need for outstanding productivity, and the ongoing stressors of your EMR.[iii] Despite all these forces, it is a New Year, time to take care of yourself and also time to forgive yourself for the times this past year you did not take care of yourself!
Now taking care of yourself does not have to be time consuming or difficult to start. The AMA offers 10 recommendations for improving your health,[iv] which is a great list, however I think this list can be condensed for our purposes as follows:
1) Get Yourself a Physical- As a cancer survivor myself, I can attest that it was my simple physical that recognized my cancer diagnosis and led toward my current recovery. This thing called a physical may also find other issues needing treatment such as your hypertension or unrecognized type 2 diabetes. Stop telling yourself that you are fine and simply do what you tell your patients- see a Doctor!
2) Be More Physically Active- This simple idea has multiple benefits. Some of my most relaxing times are walking the dogs. The AMA recommendation is 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity. This helps all sorts of issues, your mental health, your physical health, and your overall well being.
3) Reduce your intake of processed foods- Did you know that all food ingredients are listed in order of weight- with the item having the most weight in the food listed first? Decreasing your intake of processed foods has multiple obvious benefits- which includes decreased inflammation, improved mood, better sleep, better digestion, and potential improvements in your cholesterol, blood pressure, and decreased cancer risk with decreased inflammation.[v] So how about trying more natural foods, and if the first ingredient is sugar, perhaps put that item back.
4) Control your Vices- This is obvious in our profession, however as the stressors increase, so might the need to reach for an extra drink on your day off or some extra nicotine if you have had that as a previous habit. The NIH considers excessive alcohol as more than one alcohol drink per day for women and more than 2 drinks per day for men.[vi] If you find yourself binging (more than 5 drinks at a sitting) or you are exceeding this standard of 1-2 drinks per day on a regular basis, perhaps just use this as another clue to “heal thyself”.
5) Manage Stress- Yes, you are right, so easily said and so hard to do! But just think of this as truly possible when you commit to the previous 4 recommendations. Get that physical so you can take that item off you plate and reassure yourself you are as healthy as you think! Get some exercise, practice mindfulness, try 5 minutes of meditation per day, improve your diet, or simply ask for help. This last suggestion- “ask for help” is incredibly important and so difficult for healthcare professionals. But understand part of “healing thyself” might include asking for help or simply talking to a friend. I know that your own hospital Human Resource department can give employee assistance as needed- or certainly in Colorado we have great resources for Physicians through our Colorado Physician Health Program.[vii]
So that’s it- 5 simple recommendations to “Physician heal thyself”. Your credentials provide confidence in your own patients that they can be healed. For the New Year, I challenge you to recognize that same confidence within yourself for your own healing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson provides prudent advice on how to start each day which can also be useful advice on how to start the New Year! He illustrates the importance of starting each day with a mindset of forgetting your yesterdays and have hope for the new day (and the New Year):
“Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.
Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.
This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Poems and Translations[viii]
Hope you have a great New Year!
-Mark Elliott, MD, MBA