‘Never waste a good crisis’: Moving toward solutions for physician burnout

Cardiologists who follow industry news are well aware of the problem of physician burnout. In the past week alone, two more surveys have been released showing the phenomenon affects nearly half of doctors.

But at this point, some are getting frustrated with the inability to move beyond awareness and toward meaningful improvement.

As one attendee at the recent American College of Cardiology’s Cardiovascular Summit posted in an anonymous audience participation forum: “What burns me out is talking about burnout. Give me solutions.”

“We’re a roomful of scientists and the trouble is, we don’t have a diagnosis,” another attendee said. “Certainly, it’s a system issue. There’s no work ethic problem or IQ problem among doctors.”

During the conference’s multiple sessions on burnout and related topics, thought leaders in the field suggested a few ways in which healthcare providers can begin addressing burnout.

“Never waste a good crisis”

That recommendation was offered by Peter B. Angood, MD, who said clinicians must leverage the heightened awareness around the issue to convince administrators it’s worth investing in measures to prevent burnout.

Burnout, with symptoms including emotional exhaustion and detachment from the job, has been linked to above-average rates of depression and suicide among physicians. Evidence also shows it impacts quality of care, with burned-out physicians more likely to make mistakes, have unprofessional interactions with colleagues and patients or leave their jobs.

A recently released study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings put the prevalence of physician burnout in the U.S. at 43.9 percent, while a Medscape report found 43 percent of cardiologists exhibited symptoms of burnout and only 27 percent said they were “very or extremely” happy at work.

So, addressing burnout isn’t just an ethical and moral decision for healthcare institutions, but it makes financial sense as well.

“We don’t have as much data as we should have but it costs about a half a million or so to hire in one doc,” said Angood, president and CEO of the American Association for Physician Leadership. “If you lose a doc, it’s a million to a million and a half to rehire. If we’ve got half of that workforce burnt out … it’s well-known that when you’re burned out you’re making mistakes, so then tabulate those errors that are back to these issues and that impact on an institution.”

Considering a chief wellness officer

Speaking in the same session, Charles L. Brown III, MD, CEO of The Physician Enterprise at Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta, said Piedmont has hired a chief wellness officer.

The primary duty of this role is to promote and protect the wellbeing of the workforce and also serve as an advocate and go-between for staff members and administrators. Wellness should be considered of equal importance to quality, technology and other executive-level priorities, Brown said.

A wellness officer’s tasks might include building wellness programs, setting up events to build a sense of community or keeping an eye on how the clinical workflow may impact provider burnout.  

Brown gave an example of a miscalculation at his institution which he believes a chief wellness officer could have prevented. The system opted not to make a small investment in a software integration package for its electronic health record, so nurses and advanced practice providers were forced to handwrite dozens of data points per hour until the problem could be addressed.

“Nobody was putting the practitioner at the forefront of the thought and saying, ‘What’s the ramification of the decisions?’” Brown said. “That’s where I think you could have an impact. … We’ve got an advocate for this stuff.”