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Academic Pressures and Stress Take Toll on Scientists, Clinicians

Book addresses factors that can lead to meltdown and ways to counter them

M. D. Anderson News Release 11/02/09

On average, research shows, the United States loses the equivalent of at least one entire medical school class each year to suicide1 - as many as 400 physicians. The book Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: Scientists, Physicians, and the Pressures of Success (Humana Press/Springer), by faculty at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and other national medical experts, breaks new ground in a first-of-its-kind look at faculty health.

"Stress contributes to poor health in multiple ways. Yet scientists and physicians, who have an advanced knowledge of how stress and depression can affect mental and physical health, are not taking care of themselves," said Ellen R. Gritz, Ph.D., co-editor of the book and professor and chair of M. D. Anderson's Department of Behavioral Science. Gritz also chaired a committee to look into faculty health issues at M. D. Anderson.

"Many physicians tend to focus heavily on their role as healers, and fail to take seriously their own need for self-care and stress management," said Gritz. "Likewise, scientists and clinicians are pressured more than ever, as researchers rely heavily on competitive grant money to support research, salaries and equipment for clinical trials and studies. The competitiveness of scientific research adds a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety. The need to keep up with your colleagues and to succeed in your research is important to faculty in research and clinical fields."

The book explores data taken from surveys of clinicians and scientists, interviews with faculty, history, literature, religious and spiritual practices and other factors that contribute to faculty health. The array of topics explored includes faculty health concerns, epidemiology, diversity and organizational culture, ethics, support and intervention, social and personal aspects as well as career development and developmental programs.

"While there is research showing that 35% of physicians do not have their own caregiver and are poor keepers of their personal health, little information is available on the healthy or unhealthy lifestyles of scientists and clinicians immersed in such demanding fields," Gritz said. Physical and emotional wellness and work/life balance become a challenge to address in this high-paced environment, especially set in trying financial times."

Faculty Health: A Call to Action

The need for a comprehensive, effective faculty health program at M. D. Anderson originated from the suicide of a faculty member. When physicians are unable to help patients get better, or lose a patient under their care, they often do not talk about the loss, said Janis Apted, associate vice president of faculty development at M. D. Anderson. "These high-performing individuals tend to feel it is a sign of weakness to admit to feeling stressed or exhausted. They do not readily reach out for help."

The authors recommend offering programs designed to develop, educate and engage faculty members in relieving stress, opening a dialogue, ensuring confidentiality and promoting career development and success. At M. D. Anderson, leaders in the Faculty Health Program and Faculty Development have developed a comprehensive health program for the institution's 1,500 faculty members. Activities range from educational seminars, experiential workshops and relaxing opera performances to no-cost, confidential therapy sessions.

"With the economic challenges we face today, the level of pressure and competitiveness will continue to escalate. It should be a responsibility of institutions to help their physicians take care of their well-being, as they take care of the patients," said Apted.

"Research scientists and clinicians need access to a well-designed program that will enable them to better cope with factors leading to stress and burnout." Gritz said. "Additional programs and research are needed in this area, because of the impact that faculty health and well-being has on productivity, staff, patients and other outcomes."

1 Andrew, Louise B., M.D., J.D. Physician Suicide: eMedicine Emergency Medicine.

Contributing M. D. Anderson authors include:

  • John Mendelsohn, M.D., President
  • Ellen R. Gritz, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Behavioral Science, and Chair, Faculty Health Committee
  • Janis Apted, M.L.S., Associate Vice President, Faculty Development
  • Walter Baile, M.D., Professor, Behavioral Science
  • Elise D. Cook, M.D., Professor, Clinical Cancer Prevention
  • Harry R. Gibbs, M.D., Chief Diversity Officer, HR Administration
  • Patricia A. Parker, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Behavioral Science
  • Anu Rao, Ph.D., Director, Ombuds Program
  • Georgia Thomas, M.D., Executive Director, Employee Health Services

Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: Scientists, Physicians and the Pressures of Success
By: Thomas Cole, Thelma Jean Goodrich, Ellen R. Gritz
Humana Press/Springer
Pub. Date: 2009 ISBN: 1603274502


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center