Finding a Cure for Physician Burnout

 Richard Atkin

TODAY MORE THAN EVER, professionals tend to get caught on the proverbial wheel, spinning in our fast-paced worlds. This is even more true for physicians. Unlike their predecessors, who were able to spend time and focus on patient care, today's physicians are tasked with juggling additional, more complex tasks, such as managing the frequently changing requirements of insurers, government regulators and the health systems; entering data into electronic health records; and being accessible to patients practically 24/7 – all while being pressured to improve their efficiency, deliver better care and see more patients.

This multitude of responsibilities is taking its toll. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. physicians say they feel burned out, depressed or both, according to Medscape. And more than half said reducing the bureaucratic tasks they face during their workday could alleviate that burnout. The survey also reports increased documentation (56 percent) and increased computerization of work with EHRs (24 percent) are the biggest culprits causing dissatisfaction with their jobs. For example, primary care physicians spend more than one-half of their workday – nearly six hours – interacting with the EHR during and after clinic hours, according to the Annals of Family Medicine.

As an industry, we must come together to address physician burnout, as it not only impacts human behavior and interactions but is also becoming a significant problem in terms of cost and patient care. The National Taskforce for Humanity in Healthcare estimates cost of burnout-related turnover among U.S. physicians could reach as high as $17 billion. But there may be even bigger costs to patients. Patients may suffer less satisfaction with their care and experience more errors and poorer outcomes as physicians feel more exhausted, detached and disconnected from the value of their work.

An Ounce of Prevention

Physician burnout can be tough to diagnose and treat; however, if we explore the following possibilities, we can help caregivers get back to the work that was the source of why they fell in love with medicine in the first place:

Find technology that simplifies, rather than complicates, daily processes. Some physicians believe EHRs are a double-edge sword. Even though they were created to simplify workloads, they can also be a contributor to physician burnout. As one of our customers at Greenway Health, Dr. Johan Torres from Miami Beach Community Health Center, says: "It's very difficult, especially for those who've been in the practice for a very long time, to keep up with all the things that are going on. You know, we did not choose to go to medical school to become coders. We did not go to medical school to document all the things that we're doing. So, these new expectations certainly contribute to physician burnout."

Physicians implementing EHRs should seek products that were designed with the intention of delighting the user, as it's vital these solutions are customizable and cater to the caregiver's spoken and unspoken needs. EHRs should work the way the caregiver and patient best understand and naturally behave, as these solutions aren't about workflow or a beautiful user interface. Rather, it's the recognition that solutions must reinvent the way physicians work.

Empower and engage your patients. Physicians' top goal is to deliver quality care and joy to their patients. While government regulations impose significant clerical burdens, requiring a lot of data entry for each patient, the right technology can ease these burdens. Doctors can consider adopting a patient portal that integrates seamlessly with their practice's EHR systems and empowers patients to take greater control of their health care. An effective portal will encourage patients to enter their own information whenever possible, make their own appointments and find answers to many of their questions – all while online, minimizing the calls they make or emails they send to you and your practice.

Bring in support. Since the consumerization of health care is changing what's expected of all medical professionals, organizational charts at all practices must be modified accordingly. Medical schools don't go far enough to prepare physicians for the administrative, managerial and technological roles they'll need to fulfill at a small practice. It's imperative physicians stick to their core competencies and hire a practice manager or an EHR specialist to maximize the use of technology and simplify their lives. This allows the team to then focus on breaking through limitations together in service to something larger than themselves.

Seek help. Listen to your colleagues with an intention to act. If someone at your practice (or even yourself) is suffering from burnout, seek professional medical help. Just as when you advise your own patients, you should not fear the stigma of addressing the symptoms of burnout – depression, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and unhappiness.

Just being a physician is fraught with occupational stressors; you want to ensure you can provide the best, most effective care for each of your patients, while avoiding medical errors and malpractice suits. Add in the daily struggle between ethical values and economic targets, and the growing list of administrative work involved in the job, and your stress can go off the charts. However, you can proactively protect your practice and yourself against burnout by making the right technology choices, which integrate with the way you and your practice work. By doing so, your work will become more meaningful and worthy of your time, talent, creativity and heartfelt commitment – which results in a more satisfying work environment.

Richard Atkin is CEO of Greenway Health, a leading health information technology and services provider. Previously, Richard served as CEO of Sunquest Information Systems Inc., a market leading provider of hospital laboratory information systems. Sunquest was a founding member and Richard served on the boards of CommonWell Health Alliance and the Digital Pathology Association.

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