Even before the pandemic, excessive workloads and stretched resources were mounting issues for clinicians the world over. When left unaddressed, these and other daily stressors accumulate, and if adequate coping mechanisms aren’t adopted, burnout is a common consequence. This pervasive mental health condition can hit at any stage in a medical professional’s career, and it is far more serious than many clinicians are prepared to admit.
Burnout encompasses more than just physical and emotional exhaustion. According to a 2019 study published in Occupational Medicine, healthcare professionals affected by burnout report feelings of depersonalisation and reduced job satisfaction, both of which can have a profound impact on their ability to offer a high standard of care. The same study found evidence that doctors and nurses experiencing occupational stress are less able to down-regulate negative emotions.
How does mental health impact the care medical professionals are able to provide?
In another 2019 study, researchers found that the flow-on effects from burnout can be personally and professionally catastrophic. The Psychiatry Research report found a staggering 51.6% of doctors were emotionally exhausted, with 13.2% experiencing symptoms of severe anxiety. Despite these alarming statistics, the authors noted that few randomised controlled trials have been carried out, leaving us with a dearth of interventions to address these problems.
The consequences of this gap in the research are not to be taken lightly. Two recent studies found that doctors with high levels of burnout were 45-63% more likely to make major medical errors.
While the researchers behind these studies have offered recommendations that centre around psychological interventions to address the aftermath of burnout, it’s also worth developing strategies that circumvent its triggers.
Major contributing factors to burnout in the healthcare industry
No single intervention will be able to address the myriad factors that contribute to burnout in the healthcare sector. However, a great deal of pressure could be relieved if the administrative burdens of medical professionals could be reduced and their workflows streamlined.
From the yearly qualitative and quantitative data collected by Medscape, it’s clear that most of the aspects medical professionals appreciate about their work are found in patient-centric activities, while their frustrations lie in admin, regulations, and lengthy work hours. Yet doctors are spending more time on the latter and less on the former.
Source: Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2020
Source: Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2020
A study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed data from 155,000 physicians in the US. Around 100 million patient consults were assessed, and the researchers found an average of 16 minutes and 14 seconds from each appointment were being spent on chart review (33%), documentation (24%), and ordering (17%). According to the study’s authors:
“The time spent using EHRs to support care delivery constitutes a large portion of the physicians' day, and wide variation suggests opportunities to optimise systems and processes.”
A UK-based study time and motion study which examined the movements of physicians in an intensive care unit suggested similar results. Throughout day shift, a mere 14.73% of time was spent in patient rooms, 40.63% of time was spent in the physician work room and 44.64% of their time was spent elsewhere.
The dangers of leaving physician burnout unaddressed
If these trends are allowed to continue, we will be facilitating a system which serves neither the medical professionals nor the patients in their care. It’s clear that a paradigm shift is needed; one that frees healthcare workers from the demands of admin work and allows them to direct more of their attention to diagnostics and patient relationships.
Even the briefest glance at history tells us paradigm shifts aren’t the simplest things to bring about. However, in the 21st century, we have more powerful tools at our disposal. Healthcare bots are getting more advanced by the day, able to fetch information, update records, create workflows, and more. These digital assistants, such as Alphabot for Teams, drastically cut down on admin time for human medical professionals while improving their ability to file and share information. When built well, in partnership with clinicians to offer an easy and intuitive user experience, they can ease the administrative burden.
Technology can go a long way to support healthcare clinicians, but it is not a magic solution. It must be coupled with initiatives such as:
- Availability of mental and physical resources
- Process improvement
- A reduction in hours (challenging in the midst of a pandemic!)
- Team building
- A focus on work life balance
- Workplace safety assessments
- Health consumerism for healthcare workers, where clinicians work with their own medical professionals to manage mental health concerns
What would the healthcare industry look like if our doctors and nurses had more time, less stress, and the ability to find balance and avoid burnout?