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'I could not deliver the care my patients needed': A doctor's experience of moral injury

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On today’s main show, we talked about moral injury in modern medicine. Listen here.

Health care professionals across the country say they’re being forced to compromise the quality of care they give their patients in the name of profits.

Dr. Jamie Wooldridge is a pediatric pulmonologist. She says the stresses of the health care industry are driving many doctors and nurses to leave the profession.

DR. JAMIE WOOLDRIDGE: I’ve always had a love for kids. I knew from the moment I was gone into medicine I would take care of kids and I take care of kids with chronic illnesses, specifically cystic fibrosis, asthma, lung disease related to being born premature.

At my previous institution, I’m taking care of asthma patients and I find out that the hospital has decided for financial reasons to cut the social worker that works in the clinic with me, the respiratory therapists that work in the clinic with me and the dietician.

I have these staff coming into my office crying, trying to figure out why their 20 years of dedication to patient care has just been ended by an H.R. director who said, You’re done. I go to leadership, and I try to advocate to get these positions happening again, and I end up getting retaliated against myself. I had salary stripped of me. I was taken out of leadership positions without cause because I was fighting for patients and my male colleagues didn’t get in trouble.

And the stress of this left me feeling so trapped and scared that I ended up having the actual physical manifestations. I started getting headaches. I started not being able to sleep. I started having GI symptoms. I started having blood pressure. I’d never had high blood pressure in my life.

A completely interrupted my ability to take care of patients. Like I could not deliver the care that my patients needed. And so I would walk out of there knowing I was shortchanging them, knowing what they needed.

But I couldn’t provide it. So in the world of pediatric pulmonology, something that actually raises some money is doing a procedure called a flexible bronchoscopy. I’ve had bean counters say to me, Well, can’t you do more of those?

And I’m like, What do you want me to, like, go out on the street and put a big sign, come get your flexible bronchoscopy right here. Let me make the decision of what tests need to be done or not done. Let me make the decision.

I’ve had bean counters say to me, You need to see more patients. You need to see a more frequently. They want my clinics full. They want my clinics absolutely full. We’re always going to put patients first.

And I think it’s just going to continue that we’re going to quietly suffer, but there’s just going to be this attrition. Like, if I could leave … have I thought about leaving the profession? Yes, I have.

And it’s hard to believe that. I think back to the day I was so excited when I found out I had been accepted to medical school and I was going to achieve these dreams and I was going to make a difference and I was going to help people.

And now to think that I want to leave that. I have a 15-year-old daughter. She’s amazing. She’s starting to show an interest in medicine. And I cringe. I’m not really sure I want her to follow in my footsteps. She’s the kind of doctor that we want to have. She’s compassionate. She’s intelligent. And I’m going to get caught at some point in time when she says, Mom, I want to go to medical school. And do I encourage her to do that?

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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