The Exhausted Doctor Will See You Now: How Physician Burnout Effects Patient Care

See if this scenario sounds familiar: a physician is working in an emergency room and is trying to get more information out of a patient before he can make a diagnosis. But when he has the opportunity to move on to the next patient, the EMR is crashing and he isn’t able to look at their previous history. At the same time, a chart is dropped in front of him and the phone starts to ring.

Sounds tiring, right? This might happen multiple times over the course of a physician’s day, leading to increased stress and burnout. The data agrees; in a recent study of U.S. physicians, more than half reported experiencing at least one symptom of burnout—a substantial increase over previous years—indicating that this kind of exhaustion among physicians is becoming a national health crisis. According to Health Affairs, burnout is an experience of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and feelings of low achievement and decreased effectiveness. Burnout can be a touchy subject in the medical profession; no doctor or nurse wants to be perceived as “weak” and unable to attend to their patients. But attitudes towards stress are starting to change, especially if it leads to early retirement from younger physicians. If physicians burn out to the point of leaving, the cost to the hospital ranges from an estimated $500,000 to $1 million for recruitment, training, and lost productivity.

A high level of burnout should be considered a huge problem in the healthcare system. Stressful work conditions and exhaustion can lead to reduced empathy for patients and reduced patient satisfaction. It can also lead to increased clinician errors, and more physicians wanting to leave the practice. If professional satisfaction declines, the industry could see a decrease in medical school applications Increased clinician errors. Younger potential physicians might see the stress and the toll it takes on older physicians, and might choose another career.

Surprisingly, new technology can have a role in physician burnout. Electronic health records, or EHRs, have made major contributions to patient safety and enhanced coordination of care. However, along with these achievements in technology, physicians must learn brand new programs and workflows. This can disrupt a physician’s daily activities and becomes a distracting new task that takes time aware from patient care. A lack of proper equitable scheduling also plays a part in the mental exhaustion of physicians. When a schedule doesn’t adequately consider previously worked shifts, doctors could end up working overtime on a consistent basis.

According to the American Medical Association’s physician burnout prevention program Steps Forward, there are seven steps to prevent burnout:

  1. Establish wellness as a quality indicator for your practice
  2. Start a wellness committee and/or choose a wellness champion
  3. Distribute an annual wellness survey
  4. Meet regularly with leaders and/or staff to discuss data and interventions to promote wellness
  5. Initiate selected interventions
  6. Repeat the survey within the year to re-evaluate wellness
  7. Seek answers within the data, refine the interventions and continue to make improvements

Trying to prevent a further increase in physician burnout should be extremely import to the healthcare industry. By giving physicians ways to decrease their stress levels and introduce new initiatives to combat burnout, healthcare organizations will see increased morale amongst their physicians, resulting in better patient care.

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