Joanna Cannon Leaves Medicine To Pursue a Physician's Calling
Abraham Nussbaum, MD, Chief Education Officer, Denver Health
Physician burnout, an epidemic affecting two-thirds of practicing physicians, is associated with reducing or departing clinical practice. Burnout has been best studied within American medicine, where it is attributed to particular features of its healthcare system: increasing administrative tasks, intrusive electronic health records, and the escalating corporatization of healthcare. The memoir and novels of Joanna Cannon, a British psychiatrist turned writer, reveal burnout as an international experience occurring even in single-payer systems. In her best-selling novels, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie, Cannon dramatized the lives of persons with mental illness and also showed how initial choices can lead people into unexpected places. She amplified these themes in her memoir, Breaking and Mending: a junior doctor’s stories of compassion and burnout. Cannon tells the story of her medical training and eventual departure from clinical practice as an unexpected journey. When Cannon’s memoir is read in the context of her novels, it raises the possibility that the purported causes of physician burnout are mere symptoms. The underlying cause of Cannon’s departure from clinical practice best resembles Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment, in which the sacred is rationalized and devalued. As a physician’s calling is rationalized and devalued, Cannon’s work implies, a physician may have to leave medicine to find the sacred space where a physician’s calling may be truly pursued.