Three key steps for reducing physician burnout

It’s ironic that an industry whose mission is to treat the ills of others is facing an epidemic of its own.

Physician burnout has long been a challenge in healthcare, but the problem is so pronounced that it has sparked a national conversation.

A recent Journal of American Medical Association study revealed that physician burnout rose to 54.4 percent from 45.5 percent between 2011 and 2014. Findings from another JAMA study were equally distressing – that nearly half of all young doctors in residency programs had symptoms of burnout, including exhaustion or depression, at least one day a week. A large number of them also said they regretted making healthcare their career choice.

There are many theories about the cause of the problem. Some say it’s because physicians are depressed or not content at home, but the authors of one of the JAMA articles confirmed that the real reason for burnout is that physicians are unhappy at work.

That comes as little surprise to those of us in the trenches.

Most physicians would agree that they got into the profession because they wanted to help people, but their roles have changed as they continue to navigate a changing medical environment. Sadly, they are spending less time with patients and more time tied to their laptops, implementing quality measures and jumping through hoops to get reimbursed for their services.

The good news is that there are some solutions worth revisiting.

For starters, thinking of the physician not as an individual provider but as part of a dedicated care coordination team.

Dedicated is the operative word here. Imagine if patients were introduced to this bigger team, with physician assistants carrying more of the patient load, social workers counseling patients on solutions to psycho-social challenges, RN care coordinators discussing medications and other next steps as part of their treatment regime, and designated practice staff playing a bigger role in meeting the administrative demands of payers, CMS and others. More and better coordination with others in the healthcare sphere is a path to creating a more efficient healthcare system while getting doctors back to the jobs they love. This is especially true for primary care providers.

At Arizona Care Network, we are seeing this firsthand as we pilot a project to embed dedicated care coordination teams into physician practices. We also are advocating CMS to re-evaluate reimbursement of care coordination teams as a way of reducing waste in the system, improving the patient experience and driving higher provider satisfaction.

Contrary to popular belief, technology also can help reduce physician burnout.

It’s true that technology can take physicians away from their patients, but if used in real time, by the right team members and with systems and tools that “talk” to each other, technology can streamline practice operations and provide meaningful data to help physicians achieve better clinical outcomes for patients and drive population health. It’s important for physicians to know that they don’t have to go it alone when it comes to investing in technology tools. Accountable care and other organizations can help; it’s part of the role we play in achieving the Quadruple Aim, which adds provider satisfaction as a priority in addition to the Triple Aim of improving the health of our population, reducing the cost of care and delivering a better patient experience.

Another solution to physician burnout requires a paradigm shift. Historically, physicians have been looked upon as the sole source for keeping patients healthy or getting them on the road to recovery. As healthcare continues to evolve, it will be critical for physicians to empower their patients to take control of their health. That means ensuring that they know their health histories, the medications they take and the requirements for healthy living. It sounds simple, but I’m sure all of us who work in healthcare can agree that there’s a long way to go to improve patients’ health literacy and build self-accountability for their health.

Physicians are the lifeblood of healthcare. As such, we must harness their expertise and allow them to work at the top of their license. Doing so will benefit patients and bring back their joy in the practice of medicine.

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Dr. Ann Marie Sun served as an emergency physician for 14 years. Her own experience with physician burnout precipitated a career transition in 2013. Dr. Sun now serves as medical director of population health at Arizona Care Network, one of the nation’s leading physician-led and governed accountable care organizations, more than 5,500 providers and 300,000 patients.

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