This article is adapted, in part, from an article that appeared in SROA’s publication, Radiation Oncology for Administrators (Vol 31 No 5).
Many medical physicists have shared their concerns with me about their overwhelming workloads and exhaustion. Debbie Schofield decided to explore the prevalence of burnout in the medical physicist community as part of her doctoral studies. She conducted a study about job-related attitudes and burnout in the medical physics profession.
Medical physicists don’t use the term “burnout.” They talk instead about their significant workloads and lack of work-life balance. In the past, employees bore responsibility for taking care of burnout—they were often told to take up yoga and meditate. Current research shows that burnout is pervasive in the workforce, and avoiding burnout requires an organization-wide effort.
In radiation oncology—and in health care more broadly—a relationship exists between burnout and the safety and quality of clinics. Safety and quality is a big component of a medical physicist’s work. The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) has many task groups (TGs) devoted to improving quality and safety, but medical physicists have indicated it can be challenging to read all the reports and implement all the recommendations.
Medical physicists have higher workloads because some colleagues have retired earlier than expected, and those vacancies aren’t being filled quickly enough. Some community hospitals that have been without physicists for months because they can’t fill the positions. At Schofield’s workplace, a position has been open for a year due to a retirement. Another facility she knows of is short two physicists, which has left the remaining ones stretched thin and feeling like they live at work.
The residency requirement to get board-certified means physicists take longer to join the workforce full-time. In addition, quality improvement (QI) projects are common as technology is upgraded and implemented, and processes are improved, and these projects require more person hours beyond the standard clinic workload. But these QI projects also mean more work. For example, the AAPM recommendations for Linac QA jumped significantly between the publications of TG-40 to TG-142. More and new technology means additional tests, which translates into longer hours or a need for additional personnel. Administration also feels the squeeze because reimbursements are going down, Schofield explains. It’s not simply a matter of asking organizational leaders for additional high-dollar personnel to help balance out the workload. And it’s not simply about hiring more staff or providing financial incentives.
To alleviate these issues, Schofield says administrators can empower medical physicists to try to create a work-life balance and to support them. Of course, it’s harder to achieve that balance in a single-physicist setting. Schofield’s employer created a wellness committee to address burnout amongst employees. Building a sense of community and having open and honest communication doesn’t cost anything, but it’s helpful, she says.
Giving medical physicists “a seat at the table,” Schofield says, will enable them to provide administrators with realistic timelines for getting projects done. A project timeline will be different if the physicist is expected to keep up with the clinical workload and roll out a project simultaneously, compared to a project timeline in which extra help is brought in to either assist with the clinical load or the project.
Administrators can focus on relationship-building, enhancing communication, creating more inclusivity in decision-making and giving medical physicists more autonomy to find a work-life balance. Building relationships can help prevent burnout and increase retention. Turnover is costly. As Schofield explains, medical physicists often feel isolated, and that they’re not part of the team. Involving them in the clinic and building that sense of community is vital.
Schofield also encourages medical physicists to find an area or topic they are passionate about and put energy into it. Her work passion is quality and safety. She recommends carving out a niche in our day or week to dedicate a few hours to pursue something then enjoy. And when at home, disconnect, she says.
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Related Content: Radiation Oncology for Administrators (Vol 31 No 5)