Back 5 Ways for Doctors to Deal with Burnout - Part I

5 Ways for Doctors to Deal with Burnout - Part I

Doctors: Does it sometimes feel like there aren’t enough hours in the week to accomplish everything your job requires? If so, you’re not alone: Doctor burnout is all too real, and it’s increasingly being called out as a serious issue in the healthcare industry.

“In 2011, a survey of nearly 7,000 physicians by the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic found that just over 45% met criteria for burnout,” wrote Modern Healthcare’s Elizabeth Whitman in October, 2016. “Three years later, a follow-up survey found signs of burnout among nearly 55% of physicians.”

What’s behind this surge in physician burnout? Some of it is “simply inherent in modern healthcare,” Whitman writes. Other sources “stem from U.S. government efforts to convert its healthcare payments into a system based on value rather than volume,” she adds. “In order to avoid reductions in Medicare reimbursements under several of these initiatives, doctors have to submit quality data from EHRs that many find time-consuming and confusing.”

Many healthcare organizations and thought leaders are well aware of the problem of doctor burnout and actively working on potential solutions. In the meantime, here are five steps physicians themselves can take to help stave off feelings of burnout and exhaustion and help ensure a happier, healthier and more productive work/life balance.

5 Ways to Deal with Doctor Burnout

1. Open Communications with Your Employer.

It can be difficult to bring up issues of exhaustion and overwork with your employer. Too often, physician burnout as seen as a failure on the part of the doctor, who may be reluctant to admit his or her feelings of exhaustion and/or depression to an employer.

Yet, with study after study confirming burnout as a real threat to healthcare in America, physicians can enter into these conversations armed with more supporting data than ever before. And employers aren’t blind to this reality: They are increasingly understanding that physician burnout can cause larger, systemic problems within their organization.

“Executives need their physicians to be engaged, nimble, resilient, and invested in helping the organization improve quality, develop more efficient care delivery models, and enhance productivity,” point out the authors of a 2017 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings medical journal

Beyond the “moral and ethical imperative” to addressing burnout among doctors — such as broken relationships, substance abuse, and even suicide — there’s also the very real operational consequences it can have.

“Physician distress has also been linked to physician prescribing habits, test ordering, the risk of malpractice suits, and whether or not patients adhere with physicians’ medical recommendations,” the Mayo authors point out. These are all of immediate concern to your employer, and bringing these factors into the conversation will strengthen your argument, as well as underline the need to take doctor burnout much more seriously.

And you likely won’t be the first person to bring up the issue with your employer. Calling physician burnout a “precondition to patient safety” that has been “neglected,” Dr. Tejal Gandhi, CEO of the National Patient Safety Foundation told Whitman that “there needs to be a focus on systems as well [as] on building individual resilience.”

2. Find New Ways to Focus on Work/Life Balance.

Whether or not your employer (or the practice you run) has set standards to encourage greater work/life balance, it is increasingly within your power to make these improvements yourself.

“Physicians are nearly twice as likely to be dissatisfied with work-life integration as US workers in other fields,” the Mayo Clinic study authors point out. “This problem is likely, in part, explained by differences in work hours. The high work hours expected of a full-time position in medicine make it difficult for physicians to integrate their personal and professional lives.”

If you find yourself in a situation where work has taken the priority over personal life, speak to your employer about the necessity of making adjustments. In our current era of widespread physician shortage, a reduction in hours may not be possible — but other solutions may be.

Adjusting your hours (a later start to your day, or an earlier finish), your schedule (more or less time working on the weekends) or your priorities (what tasks are immediate, versus which can be deferred) may give you the time you need to catch up with your personal life, while also granting you more time to meet your professional goals.

“Allowing physicians to start the work day earlier/later or to work longer hours on certain days of the week and shorter hours on others may allow individual physicians to meet personal responsibilities without having to reduce total work effort,” the Mayo authors advise. “This is typically preferable to the organization than having a part-time physician and can represent a win-win for both the individual and the organization.”

Stay tuned for part two in the series.

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