Physicians on the front lines of health care today are sometimes described as going to battle. It’s an apt metaphor. Physicians, like combat soldiers, often face a profound and unrecognized threat to their well-being: moral injury.

Moral injury is frequently mischaracterized. In combat veterans it is diagnosed as post-traumatic stress; among physicians it’s portrayed as burnout. But without understanding the critical difference between burnout and moral injury, the wounds will never heal and physicians and patients alike will continue to suffer the consequences.

Burnout is a constellation of symptoms that include exhaustion, cynicism, and decreased productivity. More than half of physicians report at least one of these. But the concept of burnout resonates poorly with physicians: it suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience, traits that most physicians have finely honed during decades of intense training and demanding work. Even at the Mayo Clinic, which has been tracking, investigating, and addressing burnout for more than a decade, one-third of physicians report its symptoms.

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We believe that burnout is itself a symptom of something larger: our broken health care system. The increasingly complex web of providers’ highly conflicted allegiances — to patients, to self, and to employers — and its attendant moral injury may be driving the health care ecosystem to a tipping point and causing the collapse of resilience.

The term “moral injury” was first used to describe soldiers’ responses to their actions in war. It represents “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Journalist Diane Silver describes it as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.”

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The moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care.

Most physicians enter medicine following a calling rather than a career path. They go into the field with a desire to help people. Many approach it with almost religious zeal, enduring lost sleep, lost years of young adulthood, huge opportunity costs, family strain, financial instability, disregard for personal health, and a multitude of other challenges. Each hurdle offers a lesson in endurance in the service of one’s goal which, starting in the third year of medical school, is sharply focused on ensuring the best care for one’s patients. Failing to consistently meet patients’ needs has a profound impact on physician wellbeing — this is the crux of consequent moral injury.

Physicians are smart, tough, durable, resourceful people. If there was a way to MacGyver themselves out of this situation by working harder, smarter, or differently, they would have done it already.

In an increasingly business-oriented and profit-driven health care environment, physicians must consider a multitude of factors other than their patients’ best interests when deciding on treatment. Financial considerations — of hospitals, health care systems, insurers, patients, and sometimes of the physician himself or herself — lead to conflicts of interest. Electronic health records, which distract from patient encounters and fragment care but which are extraordinarily effective at tracking productivity and other business metrics, overwhelm busy physicians with tasks unrelated to providing outstanding face-to-face interactions. The constant specter of litigation drives physicians to over-test, over-read, and over-react to results — at times actively harming patients to avoid lawsuits.

Patient satisfaction scores and provider rating and review sites can give patients more information about choosing a physician, a hospital, or a health care system. But they can also silence physicians from providing necessary but unwelcome advice to patients, and can lead to over-treatment to keep some patients satisfied. Business practices may drive providers to refer patients within their own systems, even knowing that doing so will delay care or that their equipment or staffing is sub-optimal.

Navigating an ethical path among such intensely competing drivers is emotionally and morally exhausting. Continually being caught between the Hippocratic oath, a decade of training, and the realities of making a profit from people at their sickest and most vulnerable is an untenable and unreasonable demand. Routinely experiencing the suffering, anguish, and loss of being unable to deliver the care that patients need is deeply painful. These routine, incessant betrayals of patient care and trust are examples of “death by a thousand cuts.” Any one of them, delivered alone, might heal. But repeated on a daily basis, they coalesce into the moral injury of health care.

Physicians are smart, tough, durable, resourceful people. If there was a way to MacGyver themselves out of this situation by working harder, smarter, or differently, they would have done it already. Many physicians contemplate leaving heath care altogether, but most do not for a variety of reasons: little cross-training for alternative careers, debt, and a commitment to their calling. And so they stay — wounded, disengaged, and increasingly hopeless.

In order to ensure that compassionate, engaged, highly skilled physicians are leading patient care, executives in the health care system must recognize and then acknowledge that this is not physician burnout. Physicians are the canaries in the health care coalmine, and they are killing themselves at alarming rates (twice that of active duty military members) signaling something is desperately wrong with the system.

The simple solution of establishing physician wellness programs or hiring corporate wellness officers won’t solve the problem. Nor will pushing the solution onto providers by switching them to team-based care; creating flexible schedules and float pools for provider emergencies; getting physicians to practice mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques or participate in cognitive-behavior therapy and resilience training. We do not need a Code Lavender team that dispenses “information on preventive and ongoing support and hands out things such as aromatherapy inhalers, healthy snacks, and water” in response to emotional distress crises. Such teams provide the same support that first responders provide in disaster zones, but the “disaster zones” where they work are the everyday operations in many of the country’s major medical centers. None of these measures is geared to change the institutional patterns that inflict moral injuries.

What we need is leadership willing to acknowledge the human costs and moral injury of multiple competing allegiances. We need leadership that has the courage to confront and minimize those competing demands. Physicians must be treated with respect, autonomy, and the authority to make rational, safe, evidence-based, and financially responsible decisions. Top-down authoritarian mandates on medical practice are degrading and ultimately ineffective.

We need leaders who recognize that caring for their physicians results in thoughtful, compassionate care for patients, which ultimately is good business. Senior doctors whose knowledge and skills transcend the next business cycle should be treated with loyalty and not as a replaceable, depreciating asset.

We also need patients to ask what is best for their care and then to demand that their insurer or hospital or health care system provide it — the digital mammogram, the experienced surgeon, the timely transfer, the visit without the distraction of the electronic health record — without the best interest of the business entity (insurer, hospital, health care system, or physician) overriding what is best for the patient.

A truly free market of insurers and providers, one without financial obligations being pushed to providers, would allow for self-regulation and patient-driven care. These goals should be aimed at creating a win-win where the wellness of patients correlates with the wellness of providers. In this way we can avoid the ongoing moral injury associated with the business of health care.

Simon G. Talbot, M.D., is a reconstructive plastic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. Wendy Dean, M.D., is a psychiatrist, vice president of business development, and senior medical officer at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine.

  • Thank you for this. I retired last year after almost 40 years and said I was “burned out” but that didn’t feel quite right. This article is much closer to the truth. It just felt like Medicine was broken, and I couldn’t face another day in its present form.
    Changes have to be made.

  • I am the Director of an Emergency Department with a complement of 33 Emergency Specialists.Without an iota of doubt,I can confidently say there exists a serious level of disengagement which I now realize is from “Moral Injury”.This article has given me an insight into the problem and will be sharing with them.I would really appreciate more literature on solutions to this pervasive and endemic challenge. Thank you very much.

  • Drs. Talbot and Dean, thank you for your clarification of what the press calls “physician burnout”. Changing the label to “moral injury” identifies the problem as not physician weakness, but as a pernicious assault on the moral values of the medical profession. Your article does a great service to the profession of medicine!
    Richard Brower, MD

  • As a nurse who has studied moral distress for several years I’m not sure that I see a difference in what nurses have been referring to as moral distress for 20 years and what physicians are now referring to as moral injury. Is there reason to believe that when nurses are unable to provide high quality care that their suffering is different than when physicians are unable to provide high quality care? Barriers to quality care, financial restrictions, EHRs and fragmented care have been major contributors to nurses’ moral distress. “Moral distress” has been in the nursing literature for 20 years. Does this concept not apply to physicians? In what ways is the nursing term moral distress inadequate to describe the experiences of physicians? Would it be in our mutual interests as healthcare professionals to use the same term to describe these experiences in order to move a research agenda in the same direction rather than perpetuating a division?

    • Though the initial posting focused on MDs, there was no shade thrown on nurses or any other hands-on healers. We are all in this together, trying our best to serve our patients and our community despite the overbearing presence and malign influence of an ever-growing, grossly overpaid and self-serving managerial class. The medical professionals and those for whom they care should set the standards and make the rules. Management should see to it that the system provides the needed tools and support; they have no legitimate role in setting professional guidelines, standards and workflow.

    • Darcy,
      From my understanding, moral distress is a precursor to moral injury. If moral distress is left untreated, then the full effects of moral injury are felt. I believe the most important revelation is that those in the healing arts (doctors, nurses, therapists, etc) are not suffering from “burn-out”. I became an occupational therapist and I loved working with my patients. My soul could not be settled with the pressure on productivity and payor source and not on the patient. I left what I call traditional treating and shifted into holistic integrative work. I am not, nor ever have been “burned-out”, I recognized that I was under moral distress and I shifted my way of practicing before I suffered moral injury.

      To your health and well-being.

  • I think doctors need to be honest tell u what u don’t want to hear because most of them tell u what u want to hear because money or inheritance a proposed

  • Bravo. You describe the experience of many professions and make so many valid points. I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you for taking the time and speaking out.

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