Coping With Physician Burnout Through Wellness Programs

Physician burnout is at worrisome levels, as more than 86 percent of the country's physicians are moderately to severely stressed or burned out, according to a recent survey by Physician Wellness Services and Cejka Search. Burned-out physicians are more likely to retire early or leave medicine altogether, which is troubling for hospital and health system executives who are trying to retain physicians while staring a physician shortage in the face.

There is one solution hospitals and health systems can use to combat burnout and help retain and attract new physicians: wellness programs.

"Physician wellness impacts the ability to attract and retain good physicians," says Daniel Whitlock, MD, MBA, consulting physician for Physician Wellness Services and former medical director of CentraCare Health System in St. Cloud, Minn. "Physician wellness also has the opportunity to relieve physicians of stress and increase their satisfaction."

Rhonda Ketterling, MD, CMO of Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D., agrees. "Physician wellness [programs can] prevent burnout in physicians," she says. "Burnout can lead to some real issues when it comes to how well physicians work." Burnout and fatigue can lead to reduced hand-eye coordination and memory, which can lead to quality and patient safety issues.

Dr. Ketterling is currently implementing an internal physician wellness program at Sanford in Fargo, and Dr. Whitlock implemented a program through Physician Wellness Services when he was with CentraCare. The programs have some differences, but work toward the same goal of handling burnout that is already present and avoiding it in the future.

Managing burnout symptoms

One of the main aspects of a physician wellness program is providing a counseling service for physicians and their families who are dealing with stress. Beyond that, though, Dr. Whitlock says they can be helpful in dealing with disruptive physicians who may be feeling burned-out.

While stressed physicians can self-refer to receive counseling, disruptive physicians can be sent for mandatory evaluation. "If I had a physician that did something that was not acceptable to us, I can send that physician for evaluation and development of a treatment plan," Dr. Whitlock says. The mandatory evaluation helps determine how the physician should be disciplined and rehabilitated.

The physicians can call a physician wellness counselor, most of whom have experience in healthcare administration roles as well as practicing medicine, and talk through their stress over the phone. "We can take small issues and keep them from becoming big issues," Dr. Whitlock says. "I've had a number of people come back to me and say they gave them good advice."

Dr. Ketterling also uses counseling to deal with disruptive physicians at Sanford, but goes about it face-to-face. "If a physician is disruptive, I can intervene on the day of the issue," she says. "Our physicians have preferred to work with someone they can visit and sit across the table from rather than by phone."

Also, Sanford physicians facing a malpractice suit are required to meet with a psychologist. "The sole purpose of that is to take care of our physicians and make sure they have a strategy for coping with the stress of malpractice," she says.

Avoiding future burnout

Hospitals can offer their physicians a concierge service as part of a physician wellness program, which can help reduce stress of current physicians and attract new physicians. The concierge researches services in the hospital's community and can provide physicians and their families with help finding what they need in the area. "For example, babysitters are a big thing that physicians need coming in to the area," Dr. Whitlock says. Concierge services can also help physicians with travel plans, which can be helpful for physicians with family in different states or countries.

Hospitals may also consider offering fitness programs or reducing physician work hours as part of a physician wellness program. Sanford offers its physicians a reduced membership rate to its exercise facilities to encourage physicians to use them and stay healthy. "That way, they can pay attention to their own health through exercise," says Dr. Ketterling. Sanford executives are also working to make sure physicians are not working more than 60 hours each week in order to avoid burnout.

The response to the physician wellness program at Sanford Health has been positive. "Anecdotally, I've had nothing but positive comments from physicians," says Dr. Ketterling. She is planning on expanding the program in the future and doing an engagement survey to gauge physician response more formally down the line.

Regardless of the shape that a physician wellness program takes, it is becoming more important for hospitals and health systems to have one in order to keep their current physicians and stay competitive when recruiting new ones.

More Articles on Physician Burnout:

Using Hybrid Concierge Medicine to Attract, Incentivize Primary Care Physicians
12 Key Issues Hospitals Will Face in 2013
Does Money Play No Role in Physician Burnout?

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