Sonia Gupta MD, Chief Medical Officer, Change Healthcare.
We are amid a well-known epidemic of physician burnout. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the healthcare industry was experiencing unprecedented levels of labor shortages and patient volumes.
As a practicing radiologist, I’ve seen firsthand the impact this has had on workers. Many physicians have had to work long hours away from their families, with no one available to replace them. For working parents within and outside of the healthcare industry, this was an especially challenging time.
Now, as we transition toward recovery, patients who postponed things like routine radiology screenings—either because of fear or facility closure—are coming back. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to catch up.
Across the industry, we are experiencing challenges of delayed patient care and overwhelmed and overworked staff.
Fighting Physician Burnout: A Moral Obligation
Recently, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory raising awareness about the crisis. The surgeon general described burnout as “an occupational syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (i.e., cynicism), and a low sense of personal accomplishment at work.” Confronting long periods of fear, loneliness and uncertainty, healthcare workers performed herculean tasks to benefit those in their care. But the gratitude that emerged within the first few months of the pandemic has turned to fatigue as the public confronts new virus variants and unequal access to care.
I find the surgeon general’s advisory as more of an alarm. The burnout epidemic has far-reaching implications across productivity, care and costs. The University of Texas Medical Branch estimated the total annual cost of burnout among healthcare managers to be $300 billion.
The years of training that health workers have to undertake only add to the burden. The 12 to 15 years of developing a fully trained physician creates a gap that challenges any replacement strategy. Simply put, as more physicians permanently leave the workforce or even go part time, the net result means decreased access to care for patients. The Association of American Medical Colleges projected a physician shortage of between around 40,000 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.
Modernization And Confronting The Challenge
Confronting a challenge of this magnitude requires a systematic approach. Some healthcare organizations have begun to offer more time off and financial support. Others are implementing early talent programs to help fill gaps.
While these can be helpful, I believe modernization and technology are the keys to overcoming this challenge. Hospitals and offices should make it easier for physicians to do their jobs, which often requires decreasing the number of clicks on an iPad or computer screen. Practically speaking, modernization and technology can improve workflow, which gives physicians more time to consult with patients. If workflow is better, that gives medical specialists more time to consult with other physicians about a patient’s case and provide better care.
As an example, imaging solutions can enable secure access from any location on the cloud and eliminate pre-fetching, ultimately speeding up the time it takes to view an image from a local archive.
Health organizations can also allow video and phone visits with physicians. Telehealth, in general, has practical implications for burdened health workers. Many physicians are working in systems where their practicing facilities are geographically separated. When you need to manage multiple locations, hours can be lost on the commute. Telehealth and hybrid practices can help establish more availability for specialty physicians to provide care, particularly in locations that have limited access to quality care.
For patient visits that are in person, especially when it involves multiple specialists on the same day, I recommend organizations look toward applying artificial intelligence for smart scheduling. This can help ensure that appointments for imaging exams such as MRIs and CT scans are fully utilized, and wait times can be decreased by making sure that a late or canceled appointment slot can be given to another patient that is waiting for the same exam.
Applications of this type of technology are also being used by surgeons who need to schedule time in the operating room to treat patients. Artificial intelligence software can help prioritize urgent patient cases to streamline workflow.
New Data Systems And Interoperability
To be sure, this endeavor to technological platforms and telehealth will be gradual. Bringing in anything new is always a challenge, particularly for those who rely on technology to do their jobs, so an impediment to adoption will be change management. It should also be noted that the hurdles to adopting such technology can include IT staff bandwidth, working with older systems and getting the budget for these types of innovations.
Mayo Clinic published the findings of a study of more than 20,000 healthcare practitioners at 124 institutions. The study, which was conducted with assistance from the American Medical Association, evaluated the stress physicians, nurses and administrators encountered during the first year of Covid and found that about 1 in 5 physicians and 2 in 5 nurses intended to leave their practice due to burnout and stress.
As sobering as the results are, we can do something about it. Mayo Clinic researchers suggested that a systemic, collaborative approach could curtail burnout. Part of that approach should be replacing older technology and modernizing equipment and systems to improve the current work environment for our healthcare workers.
Some of the strategies that can be used include better access to patient data, interoperability between health management systems and employing data analytics. The stark reality is that our healthcare system is in a fragile state, with employee turnover threatening to compromise care. We have a moral obligation to provide health workers with the tools they need to confront this new paradigm.