| January 21, 2019

Physician Burnout, A Public Health Crisis: New Report Says

Nqaba Matshazi

Nqaba has been working as an investigative journalist for the last 10 years. He has written for various media outlets across the world. Nqaba has been working as an investigative journalist for the last 10 years. He has written for various media outlets across the world.

Healthcare experts say an increasing number of physicians across the U.S. are suffering from burnout, describing this as a public health crisis.

A new report by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association (MHA) says burnout has become widespread and is driven by rapid changes
in health care and in the doctors’ professional environment.

The authors of the report, titled “A Crisis In Health Care: A Call To Action On Physician Burnout”, warned that the consequences of physician burnout are quite dire and could have an impact on the health and well-being of the American public.

Burnout could see physicians quitting

A concern for the authors of the report was that physicians experiencing burnout – which has been described as a syndrome involving one or more of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. – were likely to reduce their work hours or quit the profession all together.

The specter of physicians quitting the profession is too ghastly to contemplate, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services forecasts that by 2025, there will be a nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven away from medicine or out of practice because of the effects of burnout.

“The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician well-being is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients. We need our health care institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level, and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us,” Alain Chaoui, one of the co-authors said in a statement.

Physicians spending more time on work that doesn’t benefit patients

While the digitization of the health sector is mostly regarded as a positive step, the report warns that this could be one of the leading causes of burnout. It is estimated that physicians spend at least two hours every day on the computer performing administrative tasks.

Co-author Ashish Jha, a Veterans Administration physician and professor at Harvard Chan School, said poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics meant that doctors devoted more time to tasks that did not benefit patients directly and this had contributed to physician burnout, which has been described as an epidemic in the report.

“There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines — our physicians — are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients,” Jha said.

Doctors felt that the time they spend on electronic health records was unnecessary, causing many physicians to becoming increasingly disillusioned with their profession.

The report said: Too many physicians find that the day-to-day demands of their profession are at odds with their professional commitment to healing and providing care.”

“A lot of physicians feel they are on a treadmill, on a conveyor belt. They’re not afraid of work — it’s the work that has nothing to do with the patients that makes physicians unhappy. And it makes the patients unhappy, because they feel the system is failing them,” Chaoui said.

The authors of the report said their study was a call to action to begin to turn the tide before the consequences of burnout among physicians grow more severe. The report urged health care institutions to take action on physician burnout.

Recommendations on handling burnout

The report recommended that healthcare institutions “immediately improve access to and expand health services for physicians, including mental health services. Physicians should be encouraged to take advantage of such services in order to prevent and, as needed, manage the symptoms of burnout.”

It further said, that in the medium term, there was a need for significant changes to the usability of EHRs, including reform of certification standards by the federal government; and improved interoperability. It further stated that there was need for an ongoing commitment to reducing the burden of documentation and measurement placed on physicians by payers and health care organizations.

In conclusion, the report said that “to successfully address the crisis in the long term, the appointment of executive-level chief wellness officers (CWOs) is essential. CWOs must be tasked with studying and assessing physician burnout at their institutions, and with consulting physicians to design, implement, and continually improve interventions to reduce burnout.”

This is the latest study to sound warning bells on the burnout epidemic. In 2018, a survey by Merritt-Hawkins said 78 percent of physicians experienced professional burnout, with one of the chief reasons being doctors’ frustrations with inefficient EHR.

Recently, Medscape released a report titled the “National Physician Burnout, Depression & Suicide Report,” which said nearly 44 percent of physicians were suffering from burnout.

 


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