3 Ways to Prevent Physician Burnout

June 20, 2019

Medscape has been tracking physician burnout and suicide rates through their annual National Physician Burnout, Depression, and Suicide Report. Previous reports of physician burnout suggested that upwards of 50% of clinicians suffer from burnout or excessive work-related stress, afflictions that often lead to a decrease in quality of care for patients, and quality of life for their care providers. Medscape set out to measure the burnout rates of over 15,000 providers across 29 medical specialties. The results of their survey are alarming, but not at all surprising given the current “burn and churn” mindset of the healthcare field. 44% of overall physicians reported suffering from burnout, while 11% reported that they suffer from clinical depression.

Burnout is a tough nut to crack. Physicians are tasked with a multitude of responsibilities, from charting, continued education, EHR and technological integration, to reimbursement policies and unsavory patients – not to mention the often life or death stakes met in many hospital-based circumstances. The climbing number of burnout contributors makes it extremely difficult to combat – but experts report that there are ways to address the breadth of these culprits.

Learn the Signs

It may seem like a given, but the first step in combating burnout is being able to recognize the signs and symptoms so that you can actively avoid and combat them from becoming insurmountable. Burnout is more than occupational stress. Burnout is categorized by its resonance; and one’s inability to recover from work-related stress in between shifts or during days off. Burnout has been said to erode a provider’s will to practice medicine, effectively treat patients, and sense of hope or helpfulness. Beyond this, there are three main symptoms its victim’s experience:

  1. Exhaustion that stems beyond a shift or a work day, a sense of fatigue that seeps through all aspects of the day, whether on call or completely off duty.
  2. Depersonalization that interferes with a provider’s ability to treat patients with compassion, kindness, or empathy. This often manifests in the form of diminished bedside manner, cynicism, and paternalism.
  3. “Lack of Efficacy”, or a sense of existential dread that causes a practitioner to question their value in the healthcare system.

Communicate, Don’t Commiserate

Burnout has the potential to be a silent killer – if you or a peer are exhibiting signs of potential burnout, have a conversation. Just as you’d encourage a patient to vocalize their symptoms or share with you their medical experiences, you must do the same. Releasing some of your stressors or frustrations (professionally, of course) will not only help alleviate the pressure – but it could catalyze change in your work environment. There is no shame in needing help. Communicating with your peers about what you’re experiencing will eliminate the stigma and foster a culture of growth.

The collective is often more powerful than an individual, and thus communicating with those above and adjacent to you could contribute to more effectively leadership and management within your work environment. Communication could lead to a tectonic shift in the delegation of responsibilities, as well as the average drain your shift will have on you. Some tasks may not truly require an MD to be present, thus opening up space on an already hectic schedule. Look for opportunities to speak up, to create more flexibility in your schedule and responsibilities. It may seem innocuous, but simply knowing you have more flexibility could come as a tremendous relief.

Embrace Technology

Technology, at its heart, was created to make human life easier. While many industries resist computerization, automation, and interoperability, leaning in to technology’s ability to make every day life simpler could be a formidable opponent to physician burnout. According to Medscape’s survey, 59% of provider reported that too many bureaucratic tasks are to blame for their burnout. 34% attributed their burnout to too many hours spent at work. Technology, when harnessed appropriately, can minimize the need for human participation in these menial tasks, thus reducing the amount of time spent on the job.

Unified Physician Management is rolling out a voice-enabled digital assistant named “Suki” to their network of 1,500 healthcare providers across nine states. Suki uses artificial intelligence to help doctors with medical charting and transcription during office visits. This tool was designed to not only reduce time spent charting, but to increase the true face-to-face time physicians spend with their patients. Suki’s efficacy was studied across the span of one year, and the AI’s use demonstrated a 70% reduction in the time physicians spent on medical notes.

Technology is new. It’s scary. It might even be a risk – but when a physician’s health (and by consequences, their patient’s lives), you must risk to reap rewards. Technology has demonstrated its ability to help. Suki is just one example of how leaning into technological advancement could reinvent the future and combat burnout one task at a time.

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