The ClusterF*ck of the Modern Physician Burnout Epidemic

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

stop physician burnout healthcare industry cluster fuck round on your people dike drummondWhat would you say about an industry that reliably burns out half of their most valuable workers ...

  • Workers that take over a decade to train
  • Are the point of origin for 100% of gross revenue
  • And for which there is already a massive shortage that will get much worse in the near future

This same industry clearly understands that physician burnout harms and kills patients and doctors and has a massive negative effect on the organization's bottom line.

What words are most appropriate to describe such insane behavior? [even Lemmings would appear to be more interested in their own survival]

When you realize the job demands on the average doctor are a clear and present danger to the doctors, the staff and their patients, it is not uncommon for the term ClusterF*ck to come to mind. Sometimes you will even let it slip with your outside voice ... right?

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Hang on a second, is that term even accurate?

Follow along with me as we explore the semantics and I give you 5 simple ways to begin clawing your organization out of this morass ... no matter what you personally call it.


This blog post is inspired by this  article by Corinne Purtill at Quartz at Work =

The article was widely shared on LinkedIn with lots of comments and interest from healthcare leaders in particular. It is a fascinating read on the semantics of avoidable disaster and correlates exactly with the issues that have caused the physician burnout epidemic.

"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name."

~ Confucius

Let's follow the ancient wisdom and dig a little deeper here

Corinne Purtill writes in her article:
"The term ClusterF*ck dates at least as far back as the Vietnam War, as military slang for doomed decisions resulting from the toxic combination of too many high-ranking officers and too little on-the-ground information. (The “cluster” part of the word allegedly refers to officers’oak leaf cluster insignia.)"

[ Hmm ... sounds familiar. When was the last time your CEO or CMO actually  shadowed you so they understand the whirlwind you live in? In our experience only 5% of senior leaders round on their people. The leadership ignorance of the front-line working conditions is staggering - even if the leader happens to be a doctor who was once a full time clinician. Crazy and 100% true. ]

"Stanford business professor Bob Sutton goes further, describing clusterf*cks as “those debacles and disasters caused by a deadly brew of illusion, impatience, and incompetence that afflicts too many decision-makers, especially those in powerful, confident, and prestigious groups.”"

[ wow, the further we go the more this makes sense ]

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Ms. Purtill's article goes on to lay out three ingredients required to whip up a top notch ClusterF*ck

The three "I"s

1) Illusion. 
"A Clusterf*ck starts with the decision maker’s belief that a goal is much easier to attain than it actually is. "

[ OK ... I will just kick in the illusions of 100% patient satisfaction and the concept of EMR Efficiency - an oxymoron if there ever was one. What leadership illusions would you add to this list? ]

2) Impatience. 
"A misguided idea alone does not produce a clusterf*ck. The idea also needs a champion determined to shove it along, usually over the objections of more-knowledgeable underlings. "

[ yes, what is required to fan the flames is some high-quality, top-down "leadership"! ]

3) Incompetence. 
"When errors of information and timing meet blatantly stupid decisions by people who should know better, disaster tends to ensue." 

[ Would the organizational symptoms of physician burnout qualify as a disaster? Medical errors, poor satisfaction and quality, turnover, disengagement and physician suicide?? My answer is yes. How about you? ]

Purtill goes on to write:

"All three of these failings share a common root: people in power who don’t (or won’t) acknowledge the realities of their environment, and who don’t push themselves to confront what they don’t know. 

The antidote to the cluster, Sutton argues, is a willingness to confront the possibility of failure and disappointment built into every new venture, and to plan accordingly."

physician-leadership-activities-of-daily-leadership-adls-physician-burnout5 Ways Healthcare Leaders can begin to turn back the tide of  ClusterF*ckery

1) Break through the ILLUSION that you know what is going on simply because of the spreadsheet metrics you review in committee meetings.
Get out of your office to round on - or shadow - your people every single day/week/month/quarter.

  • Rotate the providers and sites you visit.
  • Ask how you can help. Follow their lead.
  • And if you do it already ... do more.

2) Simply ask your people what their biggest stressors are. If you ask, they will tell and you can work together to address them.

You don't need a fancy burnout or engagement survey that costs five figures here. The simplest survey simply asks, "What are the top three stressors in your work day?"

3) Run a G.R.O.S.S. project ASAP. Your people will be enthusiastic participants a Get Rid Of Stupid Stuff project. You will rapidly learn over 100 examples of the exact leadership mandates and meaningless systems that fuel the ClusterF*ck in your organization. 

4) Make sure your new projects are Zero Sum on your people's time and energy.
Any time your projects ask the providers or staff to take additional actions - more clicks, more protocols and forms, any additional actions - ask the Quadruple Aim Question first. "What will effect will these additional responsibilities have on the health and wellbeing of our people?".

Many people are at their last straw threshold. Work to make the time and energy required for your new mandates a Zero Sum to your people.

5) Develop a Wellness Leadership Capability.
Send the doctor most interested in helping lead the Wellness Movement to our next Quadruple Aim Physician Leadership Retreat. They will receive the proven tools and comprehensive support to neutralize the ClusterF*ck in your organization.

CLICK HERE to learn more.



  • Are the systems of care at your workplace an example of a ClusterF*ck?
  • If so ... what are the things that cause the majority of your stress/burnout?
  • What is the one stupid thing you want to stop doing immediately in your work day?


Tags: Physician Leadership, stop physician burnout