The power of teamwork: Solving clinician burnout and healthcare issues with action learning

Clinician burnout has been described as an epidemic and a public health crisis.

Indeed, 54 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout in 2014, a 9 percent increase over 2011. Could action learning be the cure?

It’s far from an academic question. Burnout can lead to critical errors on the job, detachment from work, a low sense of accomplishment, and depression. It also has widespread negative ramifications to patient care. That can, in turn, drive higher turnover, lower patient satisfaction, lost patients and lower revenue, according to this recent study.

The burnout problem, like many of the most alarming problems facing healthcare providers, poses a challenge because it stems from larger economic and organizational issues that plague health systems. Each of these challenges – from emergency room optimization to cultural change – calls for a thorough exploration of what’s causing the problem, what’s blocking change, and what can be done to solve them.

One way to address these issues and solutions is action learning, which has gained significant traction in organizations in recent years. In action learning programs, participants work together to solve a real organizational business or talent problem and present their recommendations to senior executives. At the same time, teams develop or hone skills in a variety of areas through assessment, training, coaching, and mentoring.

Take the example of a large statewide healthcare system. This organization sought a very different, fresh approach to developing their senior-level leaders while also addressing clinician burnout and, later, emergency department optimization.

Clinician Burnout
The organization’s best and brightest leaders were divided into two action learning teams. They first evaluated whether “burnout” was itself the actual problem, or a symptom of more fundamental issues that contribute to depression, anxiety, or extreme fatigue among medical staff (e.g., long hours, wrong people on the wrong shifts, team dynamics, communication breakdowns).

Over three months, the teams tackled the issues in a series of four two-day in-person sessions and virtual work throughout. They identified more than two dozen root causes of burnout, including the lack of scheduling flexibility, lack of social support, and work unit limitations. The teams proposed more than 40 solutions in all, culminating in a consensus on two final strategies. Among the solutions ultimately adopted: a “Burnout Barometer” to identify early signs of burnout, specific interventions to prevent escalation, and innovative ways of reporting burnout without the stigma associated with it. A special steering committee was also created to implement these and continue to track burnout within the organization.

Emergency Department Optimization
This same organization later used action learning to examine its emergency department operations, patient trends in ER use, and barriers to more efficient and cost-effective ER management. To illustrate the well-documented phenomenon of ER overcrowding, consider the patient who came to the ER for a “brain freeze” caused by consuming ice cream too fast. Or the guy who used an ambulance as a personal ride-sharing service to get across town. These are just minor examples of ED misuse. With nearly half of all U.S. medical care provided by emergency rooms, healthcare systems are under pressure by insurance companies to reduce that number due to the high costs and inefficiencies involved.

Action learning to the rescue. This time the cohort was split into three diverse groups of senior leaders. The teams met over three months to study the highly complex problems of optimizing health care delivery to patients while reducing ED overuse. Each team conducted extensive field work interviewing and talking to individuals across the organization, as well as patients, about the issues.

In the end, the group proposed a mobile solution in the form of a virtual-assistant app for patients to access the appropriate level of healthcare depending on their symptoms and situations. The mobile platform would include real-time digital access to care including an innovative health bot symptom checker and on-demand video or e-visit functionality for urgent care.

The team reasoned that in the hand-held age, this tool could address the problem of potentially avoidable ER visits and propel patients to use mobile technology to initiate their care journey and be directed to the appropriate level of care.

Leaders in the Making
From a leadership development perspective, all participants in these programs were pushed out of their comfort zones to tackle large systemic organizational issues, while gaining exposure to executive leadership. They learned critical skills such as collaboration, accountability and divergent thinking. As a result, the organization’s leaders were now equipped to navigate ambiguity, complexity, and the new challenges healthcare has in store for the future.

About the Author
Michael McGowan is Managing Director, Leadership & Talent for BPI group. Mike advises business, HR, and talent leaders to realize growth through various talent management solutions. He works with companies of all sizes and industries experience significant changes in leadership, strategy, or organization. Mike can be reached at 312-334-3806 or

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