Katherine Morrison, MD, FAAHPM

How Dr. Katie Morrison Uses the Power of Story to Combat Burnout

It’s human nature to share stories. They help us make sense of life and learn from one another. Yet finding time to share in a busy health care environment has become nearly impossible. That’s what makes the work of Katherine Morrison, MD, FAAHPM​, and the palliative care team​ so important—they are giving health care providers a dedicated space to listen to the stories of others and share how their work affects their emotional health. (pictured at right, Dr. Morrison, William Jensen, Erin Nielsen and Nicole Rondinelli)

Dr. Morrison is an assistant professor of medicine and works for the Masters of Palliative Care and on the inpatient palliative care service at University of Colorado Hospital. Dr. Morrison and her team developed and refined a program, called Good Grief Rounds, to give Internal Medicine residents an opportunity to talk about their on-the-job struggles. 

Good Grief Rounds operates as an interdisciplinary, one-hour program. The aim is to use storytelling to explore meaning in medicine and promote community among medical providers. The stories touch on general themes such as grief, feeling like you’re not good enough and encountering patient violence. These themes are then viewed and expressed through the lens of specific occurrences the storytellers and participants have encountered in practice. 

Forging Connections

“So often as health care providers we go through our entire days without saying anything real to each other,” Dr. Morrison said. “When we share our stories, we forge connections and become role models who are willing to say, ‘Our jobs are hard; let’s talk about it.’” 

This openness is critical considering the high burnout rate in the medical profession, which, left unchecked, can affect everything from quality of care to prescribing. 

“The literature indicates that finding meaning in our jobs can help reverse burnout,” Dr. Morrison said. “In medicine we’re surrounded by meaning, especially in palliative care. But we don’t take the time to pull out the meaning and raise it up. Storytelling helps us all find the meaning.”

Dr. Morrison believes the program’s success is partly due to the fusion of humanities with mindfulness—a combination that research has shown is proven to combat burnout. But the success is also due to the sense of community this creates. 

“We have a community in palliative care that is pretty unique and that enables us to stay afloat in an emotionally-charged atmosphere,” she said. “We debrief after every single story. We meet with families. We talk about the complexities of our meetings. When other specialties come round with our team, they see how this type of communication promotes wellness and often say how they wish their department would adopt similar strategies.”

With the Good Grief Rounds, Dr. Morrison is sharing palliative care’s good practice with other teams. She is currently training other departments within the hospital how to host their own Good Grief Rounds. 

Enhancing Wellbeing

Jean S. Kutner, MD​, MSPH, is chief medical officer at University of Colorado Hospital. She explains that Dr. Morrison’s efforts are a valuable asset to the organization.

“Katie’s leadership of Good Grief Rounds initiative is truly a labor of love,” she said. “Her dedication to enhancing provider wellbeing, and recognizing the toll that accumulated grief takes on us as providers, stems from her deep commitment to assuring maximum wellbeing for both patients and providers.”

For Dr. Morrison, the need for greater provider wellbeing has never been more evident. 

“I was thinking of stopping the program after about a year, since it’s all volunteer work on our team’s part and I hate asking them to do more,” she said. “Also I’m an introvert, and it is work to speak in front of a crowd. But that year my husband and I each separately had a colleague commit suicide and the same year there was a rash of intern suicides. It was painful and it made me feel that I needed to help promote resiliency and wellness in my community. Four hundred doctors a year commit suicide—that’s why we’ve decided to continue it.”

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