Hospital medicine often is regarded as a young person’s field. Because the specialty is so new, most hospitalists are young, bright-eyed, energetic, and seemingly invincible. But how will they feel after they have logged thousands of miles down hospital corridors, eaten hundreds of late-night fast-food dinners, and spent countless hours worrying about their patients?
How this generation of hospitalists takes care of itself may determine if the practice can be a healthy, sustaining career throughout a lifetime.
Michael Ruhlen, MD, MHCM, FAAP, who spent 18 years as a hospitalist before his declining health forced him into an administrative position, hopes young hospitalists don’t end up with the health problems he has experienced. Dr. Ruhlen, vice president of medical affairs at Toledo Children’s Hospital in Ohio, offers a cautionary tale illustrating the need for physicians to take care of themselves so they can have a long and fulfilling career in their chosen specialty.
A self-proclaimed stress eater, Dr. Ruhlen gradually gained weight over the years, mainly because of late dinners grabbed at fast-food restaurants—the only ones open when he finished night duties. The caffeine he consumed to keep up with his demanding schedule increased his blood pressure so much that he ended up in the cardiac cath lab with chest pains. The extra weight and miles of hospital halls he walked put additional stress on his joints, aggravated his arthritis, and led to sleep apnea.
“When you are young it’s easy to burn off the extra calories from stress eating,” he says. “But as you age, you find it harder and harder to keep your weight stable, especially when your cholesterol starts going up. Your joints get sore when you walk the halls for 24 hours straight, and shift work can produce sleep apnea and other stress-related sleep problems. Sleep apnea leads to hypertension. I pushed myself for the benefit of my practice and my patients. As an older hospitalist looking back, I can say that I didn’t stop enough to smell the roses.”