Starting before they even set foot into medical school, would-be physicians face the expectation that they’ll be working long hours, often to the point of physical exhaustion. Hours are underreported, fatigue abounds, and avoidable medical errors are made. This doesn’t end once medical training is complete. Today, more than half of physicians show signs of burnout, working an average of 59.6 hours a week.
When I was asked to speak on the Physician Burnout: A Public Health Crisis panel at The Commonwealth Club, along with Thomas Bodenheimer, M.D., Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Founding Director of the Center for Excellence in Primary Care, UC San Francisco; Bridget Duffy, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, Vocera and Co-Founder, Experience Innovation Network; and David R. Strand, Operating Partner, Abundant Venture Partners, I saw it as an opportunity to emphasize the dangers of physician burnout, as well as offer hope that there are solutions. For those of you who couldn’t join us in that packed session, I’ve outlined some of the key points we addressed on identifying physician burnout, the link between patient and physician satisfaction, and what needs to change in order to improve both.
Why is physician burnout considered a public health crisis?
Most physicians take on what they know has the potential to be a stressful career because they genuinely want to make a difference in the world. Their compassion for patients is a driving force behind their ability to provide quality care, even in the face of long hours and an inefficient system.
We’ve begun to see physician burnout for what it is — a systemic problem. The healthcare system at large is responsible for putting too much pressure on doctors to perform in a way that meets quality measurements without giving them the resources or support necessary to meet those demands.
In turn, physician attrition rates continue to rise. When doctors just can’t keep up with the demand, they quit — either in search of a practice with fewer demands or to pursue another career entirely. Unfortunately, that’s the better of two common scenarios; an estimated 300 to 400 physicians commit suicide each year. While there are many reasons this happens, it’s undeniable that burnout is a contributing factor.
When burnout — or the accumulation of experiences that cause emotional exhaustion, feeling that your work isn’t effective, and depersonalization, to name a few — has become the norm in our healthcare system, we can’t call it anything other than what is really is: a public health crisis.
The effect of physician burnout on patient safety and satisfaction
Physician burnout doesn’t just impact their personal and professional lives. When doctors are providing care from the emotionally, mentally, and physically fatigued state of burnout, patient safety is at stake.
Unnecessary testing, misprescribing medications, and errors in surgery are just a few of the ways a patient’s well-being can be affected. Even the most experienced, dedicated physician is at risk of making these medical errors that can ultimately lead to malpractice lawsuits. All are indisputably bad for the patient, the physician, and the bottom line of the practice.
This problem can’t be fixed by implementing more quality measures that physicians have to work toward. Instead, the focus needs to be placed on the staff and physician experience. Do they have the resources they need to succeed? Do they feel heard? Are they getting enough time off to be with family, recharge, and take care of themselves? When the focus is on these things, first, a trickle effect will occur. As physicians become happier and healthier, they will be able to take better care of their patients.
Technology’s role in solving physician burnout
Operational inefficiency, which places the burden of time-consuming administrative tasks onto physicians, is one of the leading causes of burnout. Technology’s role in solving this increasingly dangerous problem is simple: implement a system that matches patient demand with clinician supply. Then, enable midlevel staff to use the system to manage all aspects of the scheduling process — from patient appointments to physician requests for time off.
A call to healthcare executives to take physician burnout seriously
The consequences of physician burnout don’t stop at the mental, emotional, and physical capacity of a doctor to provide quality care. At times, the consequence is life itself, with burnout being one cause of physician suicides.
It also impacts the bottom line of the practice. During the panel, I mentioned a survey from Stanford that estimated the cost of physician burnout to be around $7.75 million. And that’s just the cost of having to replace doctors who leave. Poor patient outcomes, medical errors, and recruiting new physicians will cause the expense of running a practice to soar while lowering the overall revenue.
The good news is that physician burnout can be prevented or reversed. Using technology to streamline cumbersome admin tasks and taking physician satisfaction seriously by using burnout as a metric are powerful steps toward a healthier, happier staff.
Dr. Duffy said it well: “There is hope for healthcare and fixing the inherent traumas of the system.” It’s time that we all did our part to fix the trauma and heal the system, so our physicians can do what they were trained to do: heal people.
Thank you to my fellow panelists, as well as to The Commonwealth Club, for facilitating this refreshing conversation. It’s my hope that the debate will continue, and we’ll begin to see the issue of physician burnout become a thing of the past.
Original article featured on LinkedIn Pulse.