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When physicians get dementia- a new take on the discussion of physicians health and wellness.

Theresa M. Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD

Theresa M. Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD

Recently I read a fabulous book on dementia and Alzheimer. Written by Gayatri Devi, MD President, AMWA 2012-2013, it is for the popular press and written for those with the disease and their caregivers.  It was written with a different case in each chapter. I learned so much from this book but one chapter was striking, that of a physician who began to struggle with the disease. Dr. Devi also wrote an article in the NEJM on just this topic: Alzheimer’s Disease in Physicians — Assessing Professional Competence and Tempering Stigma.

As a physician we are chosen in many cases, for our leadership. It is part of the application process, part of what we learn in training, and it is what is expected of us. We lead the health care team and feel responsible for the care of our patients and their families. When we become unwell, do we recognize it in ourselves and will others be willing to bring it up to us?  Does our leadership make it harder for others to reach out to us?

The discussion on physician health and wellness as well as burnout has garnered more discussion and it is well deserved.  And though I lecture on this topic, have researched it, and conduct workshops on it, still I am not sure that even I would recognize when another physician is in need.

When I am busy in the office, I can see 11- 14 patients in a half day session.  In a busy practice, you are running back and forth between patients. I can be working side by side with another physician, and rarely interact except for a quick hello at the beginning of a session. The more we get into our own sphere of work, whether it be inpatient or outpatient, the less we interact. Gone are the lunch breaks, I am catching up on charts or emails. Gone is the ‘Doctor’s Dining Room” and the time for lunch anyway. Shrinking are the medical societies both local and national, as physicians become employed and have fewer dollars or time to spend on organizational fees.

For now, I vow to take time to chat with my colleagues. Invite them for coffee or wine, attend the mixers that the hospital systems put on, and look for opportunities to interact.

We are human. We get illnesses. I hope to stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s, but we do not always have a choice. I hope that if I do exhibit signs of an illness that my colleagues will know me well enough to tell me. Whether it is mental or physical, others have to know me well enough to feel comfortable to pull me aside. They will only be able to if they get to know me now.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber