When I think about the term “joy in work”, coined by the Institute for Health Improvement, the first thing that comes to mind are my patients and their health. If I feel like I can contribute in some way to overcoming an illness, meeting their health goals, or improving their quality of life, then it makes the long days of work worthwhile. Like anyone else in any other profession, the impact I make through my work keeps me going throughout all the other headaches. That’s why re-prioritizing the patient-provider relationship is essential.
When it comes to joy in work, I’m not alone in being motivated by my patients. The 2018 Survey of America’s Physicians shows that eight out of 10 physicians say their relationships with their patients is their primary source of professional satisfaction.
A recent Harvard report calls burnout a “public health crisis,” and this is not an overstatement. To begin with, burnout takes a critical toll on clinician health. Four percent of doctors are clinically depressed, and sadly, the suicide rate among doctors is twice that of the general population. Long hours, high stakes, and a complicated system can all contribute to the depression and anxiety plaguing so many clinicians in our country.
Unfortunately, burnout does not stay contained. It spreads and affects patients as well. At best, burnt-out clinicians contribute to a negative patient experience. At worst, they make costly and dangerous mistakes that threaten the health and wellbeing of their patients. Studies show burnout is linked to lower patient satisfaction, lower quality outcomes, and increased patient safety issues.
And the cost? The American Medical Association estimates that burnout costs the U.S. healthcare system $4.6 billion every year simply due to high turnover and lack of clinician coverage. Nearly half of physicians plan to change career paths at some point and would not recommend medicine as a career to their kids. If burnout continues to drive smart and talented individuals away from choosing medicine as a career, physician workforce shortages, which are estimated to reach over 120,000 by 2030, will only continue to rise.
The cost of burnout – from patient safety to workforce shortages – is massive. But by getting back to what matters to clinicians and focusing on joy and work, we can alleviate its impact. That means carving out more time for clinicians to focus on their patients and reducing the amount of time we spend catering to the EHR.
Fortunately, there are a number of steps healthcare organizations can take to both recognize burnout among their clinicians, as well as help them break the often unforgiving cycle:
How are your clinicians feeling?
Healthcare organizations that are in tune with their clinicians’ wellbeing are more likely to notice burnout symptoms early — low energy levels, forgetfulness, and apathy are all signs that something might be amiss. In addition, a transparent environment that’s without judgement encourages providers to come forward before burnout becomes a serious issue.
What is the quality of their work?
Are clinicians completing all of their necessary administrative work? Have there been any errors or lapses in judgment? Recognizing any gaps in functionality helps administrators gauge physician energy levels.
What does the patient experience look like?
Examine the quality metrics at your practice and identify where quality may be suffering. What are your patient satisfaction levels? How are your online reviews, comments and other feedback? Any downward dips could be an indication of burnout.
Breaking the Burnout Cycle
Not all of the factors contributing to burnout are controllable. There are, however, steps organizations can take to improve the provider experience and, as a result, the overall patient experience as well:
Streamline and automate wherever possible.
Crammed schedules and tedious administrative tasks are both major drivers of burnout. Automating some of these tasks on behalf of your care teams and streamlining schedules so providers can better anticipate their workday helps alleviate this burden.
Enhance provider-patient relationships with simple and effective communication tools.
Providers and patients both care strongly about their mutual relationship. Automating logistical communications for things such as appointment and prescription reminders leaves room for more meaningful conversations to help providers focus on the part of the job they like the best — helping their patients become healthier.
Reach patients throughout their care journey.
So much of what impacts a patient’s health is out of the hands of one individual provider. But with modern technology, care teams can quickly and easily remind patients about needed follow-up care and post-care instructions.
Getting back to what matters also means giving clinicians the data we need to prepare for patient visits ahead of time – and I’m not talking about seconds or minutes before an appointment. Collecting basic patient health history and symptoms days or weeks ahead of an appointment can save the patient’s time answering repetitive questions and allow clinicians to prepare when it makes the most sense for our schedule.
Re-prioritizing the patient-provider relationship is about allowing productive lines of communication between providers and patients. Making sure we can stay in touch regularly yet securely to check in on symptoms, monitor progress, and request new appointments is critical to improving outcomes. And that is critical to my professional satisfaction.
Burnout is pervasive, but focusing on the joy in work can help us get back to the reason most of us entered medicine – treating patients.
About Dr. Tashfeen Ekram
Tashfeen Ekram, MD, is the co-founder and chief medical officer of Luma Health. He is also a practicing radiologist at the Redwood Radiology Group, specializing in chest imaging. In his role as Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ekram serves as a strategic customer contact to ensure the company’s patient relationship management system delivers optimal clinical workflows and meets the goals of Luma Health’s customers.