Burnout is rampant among doctors and nurses. Can the arts help?

Some 20 years ago, pulmonologist Marc Moss was working in the intensive care unit when a patient went into cardiac arrest. Moss and others tried to revive the man, but he did not survive. As doctors often are, Moss was pressed for time and he asked several medical students to stay with the deceased patient and fill out the necessary paperwork so that Moss could return to another patient he’d been seeing. Not long after, he noticed one of the students crying.

“What’s wrong?” he remembers asking.

“It’s sad,” she said. “Mr. Smith just died.” With dismay, Moss realized that he had already moved on emotionally after being present at a man’s death.

“I had depersonalized it,” he said. “It’s what we’re taught to do as doctors. It’s part of the way we were educated to deal with grief and tragedy.”

But even physicians need an outlet to express their feelings, and Moss believed there must be better ways for doctors to process the trauma they see and feel day to day.

The arts, he thought, could offer a way.

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