The Groundhog Effect

Last year, we noticed a groundhog waking up and bulldozing our back yard, even though snow was forecast that day. It’s pretty good at just putting its head down and pushing through almost anything in its path including leaves, sticks, small rocks, flowers, and so on.

Their single-minded digging has helped uncover bones and pottery of old civilizations and aided medical researchers study a lot of things including the role of viral hepatitis in liver cancer.

I can compare them to those who bury themselves in the single-minded study of medicine in the transformative path to medical practice. I can recall my medical school classmates and their clicker pens taking notes in class. They weren’t called “gunners” for nothing. Call it the Groundhog Effect.

Even if you weren’t a gunner, you had to apply yourself just like a groundhog to your studies. It could lead to another characteristic common among these creatures. They tend to be loners.

The analogy is far from perfect, of course. Groundhogs aren’t lonely. People can be, which is why medical students and residents are often advised to always remember H.A.L.T.

H.A.L.T. refers to trying to avoid letting oneself get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. It’s probably a warning about incipient burnout, a problem that affects at least half of physicians and which is the hot topic these days.

I’m always a little puzzled that so many physician wellness programs and meetings seem to devote a lot of time trying to teach doctors how to improve their resilience. It’s as though we’re somehow to blame for getting burned out.

I’m not saying learning things like mindfulness are not important for promoting physician wellness. I have my own daily mindfulness practice and it is certainly helpful.

It would also be nice to spend more time addressing the systems issues contributing to physician burnout, such as very full clinic schedules, overly complicated electronic health records requiring hours of data input that create the need for “pajama time,” which is bringing your job home with you, board certification busywork, managed care rules that marginalize physicians, and so on.

This is a continuation of the hassle factors that can lead to physicians just learning to put their heads down and dig through the mess—sort of like the groundhog, and often in isolation from each other.

Transformative processes can also occur at the end of a physician’s career. I’ve spent a long time learning to be a physician and now that I’m in phased retirement, I’m finding out how hard that can be. It would be helpful to know that others are passing through this stage as well, and that I’m not alone.

Could it be that one way to counter the Groundhog Effect is to come together and share this retirement experience? There will always be those who work well into their nineties and that’s great. Statistically, though, most of us will retire in our mid-sixties.

The graying out of the psychiatrist population is contributing to the shortage, to be sure. But we could still be useful to the next generation of doctors acting as role models for how to navigate the other transformative process—reflecting on the task of becoming somebody other than a physician. I think it would be easier if several doctors did this.

Animals do this. I saw this several years ago when we owned a house with a fountain, which was frequented by more than a couple of species of birds, including Bluebirds. They gradually arrived but were at first tentative about immediately diving in. One would perch on the rim. Another would come along and do the same, maybe drink a little water while watching the other.

Eventually, one would dip its tail feathers in just for a moment. Pretty soon, they would make like ducks.

I guess you could call it the Bathing Bluebird Effect.

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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