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How financial literacy can help reduce physician burnout

A man stretches his arms in front of a laptop.

Financial literacy has long been a taboo subject in medicine. Perhaps it’s because of our altruistic profession that we don’t talk about the money we earn or what we do with it. And it’s certainly not a topic explored by industry colleges and associations, or at medical conferences.

We went into medicine because we wanted to take care of people, but we have to ensure that we’re taking care of ourselves. Recent studies have found levels of burnout at all-time highs for physicians — even prior to COVID-19.1 It’s a particularly acute problem among emergency doctors like me, and my own observations confirm that a lot of people feel burnt out.

In school, the curriculum is jammed with physiology, biology and all aspects of medicine, and there’s little to no time spent on personal finance. So, we’re pitched into our careers, learning on the fly an important life skill such as how to manage our money. In our professional work, there are not a lot of aspects physicians can control in the current environment. Preventing burnout means focusing on what we can control in life: sleep, exercise, diet and financial management.

One big factor in burnout is financial stress. Most physicians did not acquire the skills to manage money during their training. Many of us may have started our adult life and professional career with $250,000-$300,000 in debt. When you think about it, it is daunting. In addition, physicians tend to not have the time to manage their finances properly. It’s an issue that often begins as soon as residency is complete.

The ongoing speed of this profession is like being on a hamster wheel: working hard, but often going too far and losing sight of the bigger picture. It’s important to understand the factors that keep us running on that hamster wheel. They include expenses, bills and lifestyle choices.

I ran on that wheel for 20 years, made mistakes, and then I set out on a mission to learn as much as I could. I realized how many of my medical colleagues have been in the same boat, suffering burnout and in many cases dealing with accumulated debt. 

The key is to figure out how to manage your finances properly so you’re not on the hamster wheel in the first place. This enables you to practise medicine the way you want, when and how you want, as opposed to working to support a lifestyle and keep the hamster wheel going. This then increases happiness and boosts moods, which further helps fight burnout and can translate into better patient care too.  

Financial literacy frees up our greatest asset: time

Start with a certain mindset. Know that understanding finances is not complicated. It’s not about being a savvy investor or understanding financial formulas — it’s about understanding the basics of proper money management. This includes learning how to build a foundation and an emergency fund, setting personal risk tolerance, and knowing how to manage cash flow.

It’s about conceptualizing financial literacy, such as how to automate savings, or how to mitigate risk with tools such as proper life and disability insurance. For instance, imagine a surgeon who has a skiing accident and can’t work for six months because they can’t stand in the operating room for hours on end. They risk lost income and even their career if they don’t have a plan in place to mitigate risk. 

It’s also important to avoid the traps of overspending or over-extending on loans, especially early in your career.

Some parts of the financial industry focus on investments and ignore the tenets of proper finance, such as risk mitigation, estate planning and retirement planning. Physicians are pitched a lot of financial products and opportunities, so don’t hesitate to ask any questions you have.

If you have a financial safety net, you can take steps to escape overworking and begin to earn time for yourself. Having financial security gives you choice and freedom. Ultimately, financial literacy drives toward one thing: taking back your time. Physicians should understand the relationship between money and personal energy. As physicians, we are in fact trading personal energy for money.

Burnout is very real at any point in a career. Without guidance and support, doctors step onto the hamster wheel without financial security in place, and it’s hard to get off of that wheel. For young doctors, it’s about not getting on it in the first place — because it’s going to take 20 years to get off. And for later career doctors, it is not too late to break the cycle, relieve stress and gain back more time through smart financial measures.

We need to allow doctors to openly discuss finances and how it is an unrecognized risk factor for burnout. And during COVID-19, there is no better time to start.

1 Emergency medicine physician burnout and wellness in Canada before COVID19: A national survey: Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine; Burnout Syndrome among Emergency Department Staff: Prevalence and Associated Factors

About the Author

Dr. Vu Kiet Tran is an emergency physician at University Health Network in Toronto, and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Family and Community Medicine. He is an impassioned advocate for financial literacy, particularly among his colleagues in the medical profession. He is also the founder and host of “How is my Financial Health, Doc?” podcast.

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