The landscape of medicine and health care is constantly changing. With the integration of electronic medical records (EMR) and other technological advances, physicians and health care providers must be much more adaptable than ever before and possess unprecedented levels of technical literacy in the field.
The modernization of health care has been a driver of burnout, defined as “the constellation of symptoms that occur when your energy account has a negative balance over time.”
Nearly 50 percent of physicians in 2021 reported symptoms such as exhaustion, decreased motivation, detachment, and reduced efficiency. This can lead to depression, higher rates of medical malpractice, reductions in patient satisfaction and physicians leaving the field altogether. These consequences holistically affect health care professionals, their families, patients, and organizations.
Physicians who report feeling fatigued, indifferent or unmotivated are more prone to making medical errors. A recent study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that in a survey of over 6,600 doctors, 10.5 percent are concerned they have made a significant medical error in the last three months. Those experiencing burnout symptoms (55 percent) are twice as likely to report a perceived medical error. These findings also suggest a continuum between physician mental health and medical mistakes — errors are not limited to severe burnout cases. As such, patients’ clinical care suffers at the hands of physician burnout, prompting the need for reform and revitalization of the current system.
Health care is a business, and physician burnout is not a unilateral issue — it directly affects a hospital or clinic’s organizational and economic bottom line. As such, there is a salient return on investment (ROI) for proactively preventing physician burnout. The stress from burnout pushes some to lower their working hours, retire early, or even quit.
Increased rates of burnout directly correspond to an increase in physician turnover. As a result, one of the largest investments health care organizations must make is hiring new clinicians to replace those that leave.
When positions remain open and are not appropriately filled, the existing burden is distributed among remaining staff, in turn engendering additional burnout and creating a vicious cycle.
Multiple national studies have reported that the cost associated with replacing these roles is around two to three times a physician’s salary, ultimately compounding to an annual national cost of $4.6 billion in the United States. High rates of burnout and physician turnover compromise the quality of patient care, leading to discontentment and, at its most extreme, patient alienation. When patients leave their health care providers, they often take their friends and family with them. This leads to an estimated loss of $1.5 million in lifetime medical expenditures per household for hospitals.
Solutions to combat burnout aimed at physicians require them to seek mental health counseling, identify relaxation techniques and partake in de-stressing activities.
While these options are certainly valuable, they fail to address one of the leading contributors to burnout — EMR systems. Though ongoing improvements are being made to existing EMRs, doctors still struggle to seamlessly integrate EMR systems into their workflows and find their interfaces to be poorly designed or inefficient. A key feature of EMRs is the ability to generate high volumes of billing and revenue documentation required by insurers and administrators, meaning that these systems are not necessarily designed with physicians in mind. Although new technologies might hardly seem like the solution to this crisis, given the problems accompanying existing EMRs, smarter systems leveraging currently available technologies may offer a viable path forward.
Rather than forcing physicians to acclimate to yet another technology, building out streamlined processes that complement or supplement extant workflows without burdening physicians with additional work appears to be a critical goal.
Thus, redirected alignment between provider workflows and patient values and preferences ought to be the ultimate guide to reducing physician burnout. We are now at an inflection point concerning physician burnout, and we must carefully consider how to protect those who protect us.
Divya Srinivasan is an undergraduate student. Tejas Sekhar is a graduate student.
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