Why burnout is the norm in healthcare—and how we can beat it

In today’s always-connected world, most of us are expected to produce more, consume more, and be “on” more than we ever have before.

So, it’s no surprise that as a whole, our society has reportedly experienced an increase in the symptoms commonly associated with burnout.

The effects of burnout are well-documented across every profession, but they run particularly rampant in health care. In fact, according to a recent survey by Medscape, 42% of physicians said they feel burned out.

Perhaps that’s because, compared to years and decades past, many providers aren’t able to spend as much time doing the parts of their jobs that they love. Instead of helping patients—which is presumably the reason many providers entered the industry in the first place—physicians are spending more and more time managing rapidly changing insurance requirements, government regulations, and healthcare systems. In this article published in the American Journal of Medicine, authors Andrew Alexander, MD, and Kenneth Ballou, MD, wrote, “Doctors love their profession, even as they lament what has happened to it. Something has changed, and it has worsened over the past few years.”

And while many reports focus on the impact of burnout on physicians, we know care providers across the healthcare continuum are feeling less than enthused with their roles. For example, our recent study of rehab therapists showed that while most PTs still enjoy their day-to-day jobs, they are concerned about the direction the field is heading—and even more alarmed about the state of health care in general.

Understanding what’s causing this unease among our colleagues is the key to our profession’s ability to improve the state of things—both for ourselves and our patients. On that note, let’s dig in.

Threats of burnout are spreading.

The data detailing healthcare providers’ disenchantment with their work is disturbing. Consider the following statistics from a 2018 study on burnout conducted by the Physicians Foundation:

● 80% of the physicians surveyed reported that they were overworked and overextended;
● 78% of respondents said that they “sometimes, often, or always” felt burned out, and;
● almost 62% said they were “very or somewhat” pessimistic about the future of the medical field.

And this sentiment is spreading across the industry as a whole. Our annual State of Rehab Therapy report—which I mentioned above—revealed that only 8.8% of therapists surveyed strongly agreed that they were happy with the direction the rehab therapy profession was going. Even fewer—3.8%—said they were happy with the direction of health care overall.

Like their physician counterparts, most therapists reported that they love what they do—but feel uneasy about the financial and regulatory environment in which they must do it. In fact, many said they would no longer feel good about recommending the profession to others.

“I’m sad to say that it would be a hard sell for me to recommend PT as a career to my own children if that decision were based solely on financial return on investment,” said Dr. John Childs, Founder and CEO of Evidence in Motion.

Professional pressures are contributing to the problem.

While the reasons behind the overwhelming amount of burnout in our profession may be obvious to those of us in the field, we still need to air them—together. That way, we’re all on the same page when it comes time to discuss solutions.

According to a 2017 HealthAffairs blog authored by a committee of 11 healthcare executives, “The spike in reported burnout is directly attributable to loss of control over work, increased performance measurement (quality, cost, patient experience), the increasing complexity of medical care, the implementation of electronic health records (EHRs), and profound inefficiencies in the practice environment, all of which have altered work flows and patient interactions.”

The above-cited Physician’s Foundation study found 23% of physicians’ time is spent on non-clinical paperwork, despite the unsurprising fact that engaging in patient relationships was their greatest source of professional enjoyment. Other reports have found that time spent on data entry take up more than half of a provider’s day.

Ironically, the very issues these regulations and complexities are meant to improve—namely, patient experience and quality of care—appear to be worsening, as evidenced by patient dropout figures. Approximately 31% of physicians’ patients are reportedly not completing their care. And in rehab therapy, only 1 in 10 patients, on average, finish their prescribed rehab plans.

However, there are strategies we can employ to minimize burnout.

So, how are we—collectively as healthcare professionals—going to prevent provider burnout from wreaking havoc on our field and threatening the wellness of our patients?

First, we need to have an open and collaborative dialogue, addressing the findings above head-on. It’s not just a discussion for physicians or industry executives, but rather a topic to be acknowledged and addressed by every stakeholder in the community. We’ve got a major crisis on our hands, and we owe it to each other, those coming up behind us, and those we serve to develop proactive and measured solutions.

Additionally, every professional entering (or already in) the healthcare arena should be trained in—and able to mentor colleagues on—proactive coping skills. Doing so will encourage self-compassion and improve both provider and patient outcomes.

Preventing—or overcoming—burnout can sometimes be as simple as changing settings or employers, taking a vacation and truly unplugging, adopting a mindfulness practice, building a support system, or getting involved in an outside activity or hobby. The most important step, though, is being aware of the signs of burnout so you can properly address it.

Finally, from specialty providers to the C-suite of the largest healthcare systems, let’s continually remind ourselves why we entered the profession in the first place: to help patients. Proactively addressing burnout will allow us to put our focus back on the patients, where it undoubtedly belongs.

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