The Power of Words: Avoiding the Trap of the Physician Identity

Oct 19, 2018 | Culture | 0 comments


I love the idea of turning a negative approach to improvement in health care—looking for problems—on its head. Appreciative inquiry, a process of focusing on a group’s inherent strengths and fostering positive interactions among group members, is one way of fostering change with a positive approach. Positive deviance (PD) is another.

Basically, PD involves identifying what’s working and usual local solutions owned by the people involved to make improvements. According to Leading Change in Healthcare: Transforming Organizations Using Complexity, Positive Psychology, and Relationship-centered Care, a fascinating book I’m currently reading, PD was first developed as a way to address malnutrition in poor communities—by looking for children who were healthy despite the limited resources, learning what the mothers of these children were doing differently (the “deviance”), and creating opportunities for other mothers to practice these different behaviors.

What if we were to apply positive deviance to the problem of clinician burnout? What might that look like? 

he first step would be finding “positive deviants.” I imagine practicing PD on two levels:

  • At the organizational level, identifying physician practices, clinics, or hospitals with a lower prevalence of burnout than peer organizations
  • At the individual level, identifying clinicians within a practice or clinical unit who are thriving

The next step would be observing these organizations and individuals to see what they do differently than their peers. Clearly pinpointing what they do that supports thriving may be tricky, as a multitude of factors affect the risk of burnout and could obscure the results—stage in career, organizational culture, behavior of one’s immediate supervisor, personal stressors—but the exercise is worthwhile even if imperfect. Once these “deviant” behaviors are identified, they could be spread by creating opportunities to practice them.

Creating opportunities to practice these new behaviors is no simple feat, and organizational leaders would need to be fully on board. Sure, yoga and regular exercise are helpful in maintaining resilience to stress. However, a busy physician who is the parent of young children may need tangible leadership support to actually execute them—in the form of flexible work hours, on-site child care, and on-site exercise facilities, for example. In addition, new behaviors at the practice and organizational levels will require culture change, prioritization, and allocation of resources, which are primarily the bailiwick of executive leaders and board members.

I wrote about a physician who is a perfect example of a “positive deviant.” I asked to shadow this primary care physician precisely because I was intrigued by her enthusiasm about her work and continued energy for her profession. By the end of the clinic session, I identified several factors, some under her control and some organizational, that explained her ability to thrive when so many physicians are not. For example, her clinic had an effective process for rooming patients, creating care plans, and ordering prescriptions and lab tests, which left more time for her to connect with her patients.

Could positive deviance be an effective, efficient way to identify behaviors and factors that support clinicians’ thriving? Given the urgency of the current problem of burnout among clinicians in the US and worldwide, it seems a fruitful (and positive) place to start.

Photo credit: Niall W. Shannon


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

Yes! Send me my free ebook: The Challenges Women Physicians Face: What’s Needed to Shift from Striving to Thriving. 

Learn what women physicians across the country told me about the barriers they face–and about potential solutions. You’ll also receive my biweekly newsletter.  You can unsubscribe at any time.


Submit a Comment

Yes! Send me my free ebook:

The Challenges Women Physicians Face: What’s Needed to Shift from Striving to Thriving.

Learn what women physicians across the country told me about the barriers they face--and about potential solutions. You'll also receive my biweekly newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time.

And don’t worry, I won’t spam you. I take your privacy seriously and will never sell your information to any third parties. See my Privacy Policy.

Diane W. Shannon, MD, MPH, PCC

Website Designed by Gem Seven Studio

Photography by Julia Snider and Kira M. Shannon

All rights reserved © 2024, Diane W. Shannon