July 07, 2015
The Effects of Physician Burnout

Physicians are no strangers to stress. They make critical patient decisions on the fly. They have to stay up to date on the latest advances and keep their skills fresh. And, on top of that, they work long hours, partly because of heavy administrative demands, and the pay sometimes doesn’t make up for the combined burden.

In fact, nearly 87% of physicians are moderately to severely stressed, according to a survey of practicing physicians nationwide. These levels, sustained over time, lead to burnout — which can result in dissatisfaction, lower job engagement and, potentially, lower retention rates. Turnover in particular is highly disruptive and expensive for hospitals, healthcare facilities and health systems. Replacing direct and downstream revenue is a real challenge for administrators. What’s more, when physicians leave the practice or facility, it places further strain on the remaining staff, which increases their stress, and so on. It’s a potentially vicious circle.

With 46% of physicians experiencing burnout, what can you do to support physicians, provide a more engaging work environment and try to avoid the effects of burnout?

1. Let them lead on a better work-life balance

According to the burnout survey, nearly 33% of respondent physicians indicated that better work hours/less on-call time and better work/life balance would help to reduce their stress. Now, that doesn’t mean that you don’t fill overnight, weekend and holiday shifts but, rather, that physicians need to feel more in control of their schedules. Creating a set of rules by which shifts are picked up, and offering flexible scheduling, job sharing and part-time schedules are strategies by which you can keep valued physicians on your team throughout their career lifecycles.

2. Ramp up team-based care

Hospitals and medical groups are developing hospitalist programs (76%) and actively hiring nurse practitioners and physician assistants (65%), as well as scribes and other non-clinical support personnel to create team-based care that supports physician and patient alike. Hiring scribes in particular is one of the key ways to improve physician satisfaction. Creating care teams that aid the physician in providing accessible, effective, efficient care often translates to a better work/life balance for physicians.

3. Remove bureaucratic burdens

Physicians want to focus on patient care and coordination, not paperwork and planning. A study in the Annals of Family Medicine found that physician satisfaction is increased when these four steps are taken to streamline and minimize administrative tasks:

  • Reducing back-end work with pre-visit planning and pre-appointment laboratory tests
  • Making use of scribes, non-physician order entry and prescription management that is as automated as possible
  • Filtering of electronic and paper information by a nurse or medical assistant — think of it as a sort of “inbox triage”
  • Using team meetings to focus on areas where team function can be improved, rather than going through every last detail of the practice — save the particulars for a board meeting

4. Recognize physician stress and burnout

What you might see: lower work quality or productivity, decreased empathy for patients, lack of communication, disregard for patient engagement. What’s probably actually happening: burnout, plain and simple. Recognize that physicians who appear disgruntled may be in need of more support. Strategies to employ: recruit proactively, pre-qualify candidates before interviews, use best practices to ensure the physician fits your work culture and vice versa, and provide a mentor (especially to new or newly qualified physicians).

Engage physicians openly and honestly, invest in their recruitment and retention, and you can see meaningful rewards — and a lot less of burnout.