Survey finds physicians struggle with self-care, yet patients want more guidance

Lack of time, job demands, family demands, being too tired, and burnout lead many physicians to struggle with their own self-care, and patients want more guidance on health and wellbeing, according to a new survey conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Samueli Integrative Health Programs.

Despite believing that self-care is a vitally important part of health and overall wellbeing, many physicians overlook their own self-care, according to Wayne Jonas, MD, executive director of Samueli Integrative Health Programs. Roughly 75 percent of patients say they haven't discussed self-care with their physician within the last two years.

The study included 1,006 U.S. adults 18 years and older and 304 physicians who specialize in internal medicine or family practice, surveyed from in May and June this year.

Researchers found that although 80 percent of physicians say practicing self-care is "very important" to them personally, 57 percent practice it "often" and 36 percent do so "sometimes." Lack of time is the primary reason physicians say they aren't able to practice their desired amount of self-care (72 percent). Other barriers include mounting job demands (59 percent) and burnout (25 percent). Additionally, almost half of physicians (45 percent) say family demands interfere with their ability to practice self-care, and 20 percent say they feel guilty taking time for themselves, according to the survey.

However, 98 percent of physicians believe self-care positively impacts mental health and 97 percent believe it has a positive impact on physical health. Further, 96 percent agree that self-care should be considered an essential part of overall health.

When physicians do engage in self-care, 87 percent say it is to maintain or improve their physical health, 83 percent to reduce stress, and 82 percent to maintain or improve their mental health. Common self-care practices among physicians include exercise (83 percent), eating healthy foods (81 percent), maintaining healthy relationships (77 percent), working on personal development (76 percent), engaging in stress relief activities like reading or meditating (70 percent) and getting enough sleep (70 percent).

"Physicians are under an exorbitant amount of stress,” Jonas said in a statement. “The way that our health system is set up requires physicians to spend more time on administrative duties and less time with patients and themselves. This mounting pressure on physicians will only get worse. We need to fix the system to allow physicians breathing room to care for themselves as much as they care for their patients."

Looking at patient responses, the survey found that despite common depictions of self-care as indulgences such as shopping and pampering, consumers understand that self-care is a broad concept that encompasses physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. They report their top self-care practices as getting enough sleep (66 percent), eating healthy foods (62 percent), taking care of their mental health (60 percent), and exercising (59 percent).

Although physicians think patients have limited interest in such topics, most patients would be interested in talking to their doctors about what's important in their lives (57 percent), and about their life goals (55 percent). About two-thirds of patients wish their physician shared more resources on self-care (66 percent), were involved in all aspects of their health management (65 percent), and incorporated complementary and alternative therapies into their care (64 percent).

Despite knowing the importance of self-care, 43 percent of consumers say they have more pressing issues to focus on, and 28 percent say they feel guilty when practicing self-care. Women are more likely than men to cite any barriers to self-care, 77 percent versus 68 percent. Specifically, women are more likely to be too tired, 31 percent versus 20 percent, or to feel guilty for taking time for themselves, 16 percent versus 7 percent.

The top reason that physicians cite for not discussing topics related to self-care more often is a lack of time during appointments. More than 93 percent would like to be able to provide their patients more information on self-care, while 26 percent feel very confident in doing so.

"What these results show us is that patients have a strong desire for their physicians to be involved in more aspects of their health beyond pills and procedures," said Jonas. "They want a fuller partnership and a relationship where they can discuss their health and well-being in other, deeper ways that impact them. As physicians, it's important that we listen to these desires and adjust how we treat our patients. We need to organize our practices to support behavior change."