Physician Heal Thyself: Ensure a Sustainable Career

sustainable career

Given the pace of medical school, residency and full-time physician practice, it would be easy to assume that doctors aren’t very healthy. Given the hectic days and reputed short nights of doctors, it would be completely understandable if they grabbed fast food rather than a salad, slept little, and exercised even less. However, that is not the case at all. Repeated surveys show that doctors are actually very healthy.  

Physicians Self-Report Good Health and Healthy Lifestyle Habits

Although large scale research has not been conducted into the matter, several surveys indicate that physicians prioritize personal health.  

The Great American Physician Survey of 1,001 physician respondents reported the following:

  • 60% of physicians exercise regularly
  • 96% do not smoke
  • 54.1% report getting adequate sleep
  • 70% report getting regular check-ups and following their doctor’s advice “most of the time”
  • 79% report eating right “most of the time”

A Gallup poll of 1,984 physicians between 2011 and 2012 found that physicians are in better health and have better health habits than adults in the general workforce. The poll used two indexes:

1: The Gallup-Healthways Physical Health Index that measures 18 indicators including:

  • The number of sick days in the past month
  • Disease burden
  • Health problems that get in the way of normal activities
  • Obesity
  • Feeling well-rested
  • Daily energy
  • Daily colds
  • Daily flu
  • Daily headaches

2: The Healthy Behavior Index that measures four items including:

  • Smoking
  • Eating healthy
  • Weekly consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • Frequency of weekly exercise

Physicians performed well on the poll and scored higher on indicators of good health than other adults:

  • Less than 5% of physicians smoke compared with 20% of adults.
  • 58% of physicians exercise three or more days per week compared to 54% of adults.
  • 66% of physicians reported they ate healthy all day “yesterday”, compared to 62% of adults.
  • 60% of physicians report eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables at least 4 days a week, compared to 55% of adults.
  • 13% of physicians are obese, compared to 25% of other adults.
  • Only 13% of physicians have ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure compared to 22% of adults.
  • However, 21% of physicians have high cholesterol, compared to  20% of working adults.
  • 2% of physicians have had a heart attack, the same rate as the working adult population.  

Physicians Serve as Health Role Models

It’s a good thing that physicians are healthy. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers in the United Kingdom found that “Physicians’ health practices strongly influence patient health practices and play a key role in helping their patients to adopt healthy lifestyles for primary prevention of chronic diseases.”

The study also found that providers are more apt to counsel their patients on how to adopt healthy behaviors if they practice healthy habits themselves. In other words, your patients consider you to be the most trusted source of health information, especially if you practice what you preach. Talking about your own healthy practices to your patients can motivate them to improve their health.

Your Healthy Habits are the Foundation of a Sustainable Career

If you are going to be exposed to illnesses, disease, and people coughing/sneezing all over you every day, you had better have a rock solid, healthy body, with a strong immune system. Fitness Magazine interviewed doctors to find out what their “go-to” habits are to survive medical practice. Here are 6 healthy habits that they described as non-negotiable for great physician health:  

1. Sleep

“If I feel an illness coming on, I sleep for at least nine hours. I also lie on the floor with my legs elevated and propped against the wall and breathe deeply for five minutes. It helps lower stress.”

Hilda Hutcherson, MD

Clinical Professor of OBGYN, Columbia University Medical Center

2. Schedule Personal Time

“Get serious about leisure time. I don’t work on Fridays. I meditate, do yoga and browse in a bookstore. I see quite a few medical problems from too much work and not enough leisure, and I encourage my patients to strive for balance in their lives.”

Robynne Chutkan, MD

Assistant Professor, Georgetown University Hospital;  founder of the Digestive Center for Women, Chevy Chase, MD

Finding personal time is a struggle for physicians. The Great American Physician Survey found:

  • 48.7% of physicians report that they have a good work/life balance
  • 51.3% report that they do not have a good work/life balance

3. Eat Well

“Instead of garden salads, I toss napa cabbage, radicchio, edamame, carrots and ginger-soy dressing. It gives me a lot of vitamins, antioxidants, and protein and makes me feel full.”

Margaret McKenzie, MD

Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic

Eat breakfast! “The most important meal is breakfast. Sometimes I divide it and eat one-half before my workout and one-half after. It helps with portion control and establishes a daily eating pattern.”

David Katz, MD

Director and founder of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, Derby, CT

4. Drink Water

If you stay hydrated you give your body the water it needs to act as a solvent, a carrier for nutrients, the transporter of energy, a temperature regulator, and a body detoxifier. Water can do more for mental alertness than caffeine, (most of the time!).

5. Breathe Fresh Air

Walk to work, take a quick walk around the block at noontime or jog to your car; do whatever it takes to get fresh air. It’s the great stress reducer and will help to clear your mind, ease anxiety and battle depression.

6. Stay close to Friends and Family

You may be tempted to let your schedule get so packed that you have to forego family BBQs and dinner with friends. Don’t do it. Loneliness and isolation can fuel the fires of heart disease and inflammation. Staying connected to people you enjoy is one of the best strategies for remaining healthy.

If you want a long and sustainable career you need a foundation of good health. There are plenty of excuses not to sleep or eat well and avoid exercising. However, if you want a sustainable practice for the long term, it is important to adopt the philosophy of good health that the majority of physicians follow: Physician heal thyself.

Deborah Chiaravalloti is an award-winning writer and former hospital executive. Her insider experience helps healthcare clients launch medical procedures, products including artificial intelligence software and knowledge sharing platforms. Deborah writes websites, blogs, opinion pieces, and marketing strategy for elder care, health care consumerism, revenue cycle management (RCM), and the business of healthcare. Her printed pieces have been published and her radio shows syndicated nationally.

Try BoardVitals free for 10 days.

Free Trial. No credit card required.