Dr. Keith Corl was working in a Las Vegas emergency room when a patient arrived with chest pain. The patient, wearing his street clothes, had a two-minute exam in the triage area with a doctor, who ordered an X-ray and several other tests. But later, in the treatment area, when Corl met the man and lifted his shirt, it was clear the patient had shingles. Corl didn’t need any tests to diagnose the viral infection that causes a rash and searing pain.
All those tests? They turned out to be unnecessary and left the patient with more than $1,000 in extra charges.
The excessive testing, Corl said, stemmed from a model of emergency care that forces doctors to practice “fast and loose medicine.” Patients get a battery of tests before a doctor even has time to hear their story or give them a proper exam.
“We’re just shotgunning,” Corl said.
The shingles case is one of hundreds of examples that have led to his exasperation and burnout with emergency medicine. What’s driving the burnout, he argued, is something deeper — a sense of “moral injury.”
Corl, a 42-year-old assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, is among a growing number of physicians, nurses, social workers and other clinicians who are using the phrase “moral injury” to describe their inner struggles at work.
The term comes from war: It was first used to explain why military veterans were not responding to standard treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Moral injury, as defined by researchers from veterans hospitals, refers to the emotional, physical and spiritual harm people feel after “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”
Drs. Wendy Dean and Simon Talbot, a psychiatrist and a surgeon, were the first to apply the term to health care. Both wrestled with symptoms of burnout themselves. They concluded that “moral injury” better described the root cause of their anguish: They knew how best to care for their patients but were blocked from doing so by systemic barriers related to the business side of health care.
That idea resonates with clinicians across the country: Since they penned an opinion essay in the publication Stat in 2018, Dean and Talbot have been flooded with emails, comments, calls and invitations to speak on the topic.
Burnout has long been identified as a major problem facing medicine: Four in 10 physicians report feelings of burnout, according to a 2019 Medscape report. And the physician suicide rate is more than double that of the general population.
Dean said she and Talbot have given two dozen talks on moral injury. “The response from each place has been consistent and surprising: ‘This is the language we’ve been looking for for the last 20 years.’ ”
Dean said that response has come from clinicians across disciplines, who wrestle with what they consider barriers to quality care: insurance preauthorization, difficulty in making patient referrals, endless clicking on electronic health records.
Those barriers can be particularly intense in emergency medicine.
Corl said he has been especially frustrated by a model of emergency medicine called “provider-in-triage.” It aims to improve efficiency but, he said, prioritizes speed at the cost of quality care. In this system, a patient who shows up to an ER is seen by a doctor in a triage area for a rapid exam lasting less than two minutes. In theory, a doctor in triage can more quickly identify patients’ ailments and get a head start on solving them. The patient is usually wearing street clothes and sitting in a chair.
These brief encounters may be good for business: They reduce the “door to doc” time — how long it takes to see a doctor — that hospitals sometimes boast about on billboards and websites. They enable hospitals to charge a facility fee much earlier, the minute a patient sees a doctor. And they reduce the number of people who leave the ER without “being seen,” which is another quality measure.
But “the real priority is speed and money and not our patients’ care,” Corl said. “That makes it tough for doctors who know they could be doing better for their patients.”
Corl said he was so fed up with the provider-in-triage model of emergency medicine that he moved his ER clinical work to smaller, community hospitals that don’t use that method.
He said many people frame burnout as a character weakness, sending doctors messages like, “Gee, Keith, you’ve just got to try harder and soldier on.” But Corl said the term “moral injury” correctly identifies that the problem lies with the system.
“The system is flawed,” he said. “It’s grinding us. It’s grinding good docs and providers out of existence.”