Physician Burnout: Are Our Doctors Healthy?

Physician Burnout: Are Our Doctors Healthy?

Physician burnout is getting increasingly common, but several different initiatives can potentially hinder its institutional growth.

Over the past few years, there has been an increasing awareness that physicians are experiencing burnout at a staggering rate. Research conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 2011 showed that around half of physicians had at least one symptom of professional burnout. A further survey done by the Colorado Medical Society in that same year revealed that only half of the physicians they surveyed found the opportunity to exercise routinely and practice healthy eating habits – even fewer felt they had time for leisure activities (like yoga and reading). It’s no wonder, then, that the Department of Health and Human Services is projecting a shortage of 50,000 physicians by 2020; how can you choose the right doctor when there won’t be any doctors around?

Doctors Require Our Empathy

Physicians need to be able to take care of themselves in order for them to take care of us. This critical role that we’ve relied on as the authority for our health and wellness requires our empathy.

An internal medicine physician was leading a discussion recently on how to design a primary care model that allowed physicians to work more easily at the top of their scope – with smaller, administrative tasks delegated to supporting teams. The physician, a kind and earnest person told his peers with a solemnity:

“When I got home last Friday, I couldn’t focus because I was thinking about whether or not the patient I sent home with chest pain was going to be okay.”

This is the reality. Our physicians are people with emotions, anxieties, and lives outside of the exam room.

The average physician takes in more stimuli in a single day than most of us are aware of. We see them in a vacuum. They are the people that diagnose us and treat us, but after they see us there is a host of other duties they are assigned. They have to sign-off on our charts and make sure our care is meticulously documented so that they don’t cost their organizations money. They answer emails and call patients with bad news. They constantly have to learn new technologies, medical evidence, and procedures.

How to Combat Institutional Physician Burnout

All of the perks that come to mind when we think of physicians (like the high salaries, the several weeks of vacation, and the prestige) can be overshadowed by the strain of long hours of direct patient care, administrative burdens, educational debt, and the mere intensity of their responsibilities. Several institutions and leaders are trying to address this through initiatives and programs that aim to provide education and wellness resources to physicians. While these programs are invaluable, the challenges that impact physicians are often systemic and will require comprehensive optimization. Here’s how we can do this:

1. Appropriate Digitization

Vendor assessments have never been as critical as they are now. With the abundance of technology solutions budding all over the country, we can’t put our physicians’ work at risk by selecting products that will complicate their tasks further. Interoperability is key: the more we can turn physician workflow into a simple and seamless process, then the more we can expect to see physician burnout decrease.

2. Design-Thinking Strategies

Imagine working for an organization where you felt fully confident that everything around you was designed to make doing your job easier, where the ideal end-product (patient health) was only as difficult to achieve as the disease you were treating. If healthcare organizations can think creatively about how to support the provider-patient relationship, we have a chance at maintaining physician inspiration.

3. Social Care to Support Healthcare

A physician can only do so much for a patient who doesn’t comply with his or her treatment plan, and there are myriad reasons why that barrier occurs. Oftentimes there are socio-economic reasons that make improving a patient’s health more difficult. They can be tangible, like difficulties with obtaining transportation or affording medication copays. They can also be intangible, like stressful relationships at home. Adequate social services can support physicians in helping people, the goal most people entering the field want to continually achieve.

Physician Burnout Decreases Patient Care Quality

The negative impact of the physician burnout epidemic isn’t contained to only physicians. It impacts the people they work with everyday, their families, and the patients that rely on them. While policy makers continue to debate the financing of our systems, there needs to be equal focus on revolutionizing the way care is delivered so that physicians have the practical tools they need to heal others.

Dr. Katie Richardson, a pediatrician and one of the many physician leaders out there promoting physician wellness with passion and zeal, says:

“I think the work toward a solution should be done by both individuals and organizations. Organizations need to be leveraging teams and technology to reduce administrative burden as well as looking for new innovative models of care. Mindfulness and other resilience building activities have been shown to be effective at reducing burnout for individuals.”

So, what can we do as patients to help facilitate progress toward physician wellness? Maybe the next time you see a doctor, take the time to ask if they’ve had a moment to take a deep breath that day.

Sonia Barkat

About Sonia Barkat

Sonia Barkat is the founder of Umbrella Pact and a contributing consultant to The Impact. She also serves at The George Washington University's Milken School of Public Health as an adjunct professor. Sonia is a regular contributor to HealthCare.com.

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