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Using Art to Help Cope with Clinician Burnout

June 2018Andrew Schwartz

A drawing by Sonia Lai – who recently graduated from the Family Nurse Practitioner program at the UCSF School of Nursing – was among 30 pieces chosen for a National Academy of Medicine art exhibit titled Expressions of Clinician Well-Being. The exhibit is part of the academy’s Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience.

Spurred by reports that clinicians of all kinds were experiencing disturbing rates of burnout, with symptoms that include reduced job performance, high turnover rates, medical errors and, in extreme cases, clinician suicide, the academy created its collaborative in 2017. Expressions of Clinician Well-Being aims to help clinicians better understand their burnout challenges and rediscover the joy of their profession.

“The Red Thread” Lai, a self-taught digital artist who has used art as a creative outlet since high school – including doing a number of freelance design and illustration projects – knows firsthand the dangers of burnout. When she became a nurse in 2013, graduating from UC Irvine’s program, she began in the emergency department of a Southern California hospital, working largely with underserved communities whose immediate clinical problems were often rooted in intractable psychosocial and socioeconomic influences.

“You want to help, but you don’t always have the resources, and the emergency room is not the place to treat long-term problems – it’s like placing a Band-Aid on a large, gaping wound,” she says. “That was my first full-time job, and it was a difficult transition for me.”

She recognized she was burning out and decided to apply to UCSF, so she could have more of a long-term impact by becoming a primary care NP. During her 2017 winter break, after more than a year in the program, Lai saw the academy’s call for submissions online. Determined to raise awareness about clinician burnout, she completed her piece, titled “The Red Thread,” and submitted it before classes began again. She heard this spring that it had been accepted and attended the opening in Washington, DC.

“As clinicians, we don’t always feel like it’s OK to feel burned out because our patients always come first,” she says. “Meeting other providers from other specialties who also use art to cope with distress has helped me remember that we need to take care of ourselves.”