How Stanford's WellMD center aims to fight physician burnout

Ten years ago, Stanford (Calif.) University began work to tackle the growing issue of physician burnout. In 2017, the institution created the WellMD Center, which aims to help medical professionals at Stanford and across the nation take steps to improve their own well-being so they can provide better care for patients.

Bryan Bohman, MD, a senior adviser to WellMD, spoke with Healio Psychiatric Annals and discussed Stanford's efforts to push the needle forward on physician well-being. He said the first step in fighting burnout was to acknowledge its significance and how it affects the system as a whole.

"Evidence shows that the wellness of the health care providers has important effects on the health system performance — not just in quality, but also in patient satisfaction, financial outcomes, productivity and physician turnover. We wanted to create a structure that would emulate a quality department — a sustainably funded, organizationally endorsed center that would measure wellness, explore ways to improve it and basically elevate the consciousness of everybody in the organization that this is a major issue," he said.

Dr. Bohman noted that Stanford created a wellness task force roughly five years ago and conversations among leadership led to the creation of the chief wellness officer position for the system. Tait Shanafelt, MD, was hired to the role in 2017.

The system also created a physician wellness survey to gauge Stanford physicians' feelings about their work and overall well-being. The survey aims to study three areas that contribute to physician wellness: personal resilience, culture of wellness and efficiency of practice.

"Resilience is important and physicians should consider self-care as a professional obligation, similar to staying current with the latest medical literature. But with over 50 percent of physicians nationwide showing signs of burnout, health system leaders must not put the burden on the backs of physicians to simply 'heal themselves.' We must take responsibility for improving healthcare systems, schools of medicine and the culture of medicine so that we don't create burnout among the highly capable and psychologically healthy individuals who enter the profession," Dr. Bohman said.

"I strongly believe that the combination of focusing on wellness as a high priority and developing performance improvement capabilities in the industry is going to be what pulls us out of this spiral we've been caught in of late," he added. "If you look at the bottom line of what makes physicians happy, it's being able to take great care of their patients. That's why we went into medicine, that's the way we were trained, and so we will absolutely beat ourselves up trying to do that. If the system doesn't support us being able to do that in a way that's compatible with normal work-life balance and stress levels, we will keep trying anyway."

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