Sonia Gupta MDChief Medical Officer, Change Healthcare.
We are in the midst of a well-known epidemic of physician burnout. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the healthcare sector has faced unprecedented levels of labor shortages and patient volumes.
As a practicing radiologist, I have seen firsthand the impact this has had on employees. Many doctors have had to work long hours away from their families, with no one available to replace them. This was a particularly challenging time for working parents in and out of healthcare.
As we move into recovery, patients who have delayed things like routine radiologic screenings, either because of fear or facility closures, are coming back. Unfortunately it was difficult to overtake.
Across the industry, we are experiencing challenges of delayed patient care and overwhelmed and overworked staff.
Fighting physician burnout: a moral obligation
Recently, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued: an advice awareness about the crisis. The surgeon general described burnout as “an occupational syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (ie, cynicism) and a low sense of personal competence at work.” Faced with long periods of fear, loneliness and uncertainty, health professionals performed gigantic tasks on behalf of those entrusted to their care. But the gratitude that emerged in the first few months of the pandemic has turned to fatigue as the public faces new virus variants and unequal access to care.
I find the surgeon general’s advice more of an alarm. The burnout epidemic has far-reaching consequences on productivity, care and costs. The University of Texas Medical Department estimated the total annual cost of burnout among healthcare managers as: $300 billion.
The years of training that health professionals must undergo 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 doctors leave staff permanently or even go part-time, the net result means reduced access to care for patients. The Association of American Medical Colleges projected a physician shortage of between 40,000 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.
Modernization and meeting the challenge
Taking on a challenge of this magnitude requires a systematic approach. Some health care organizations have started offering more free time and financial support. Others run early talent programs to fill gaps.
While these can be helpful, I believe that modernization and technology are the keys to meeting this challenge. Hospitals and offices need to make it easier for doctors to do their jobs, which often requires a reduction in the number of clicks on an iPad or computer screen. In practice, modernization and technology can improve workflow, giving physicians more time to consult with patients. When the workflow is better, medical specialists have more time to consult with other doctors about a patient’s case and provide better care.
For example, imaging solutions can enable secure access from anywhere in the cloud and eliminate prefetching, ultimately reducing the time it takes to view an image from a local archive.
Health organizations may also allow video and phone visits with doctors. Telehealth generally has practical implications for burdened health professionals. Many physicians work in systems where their practice facilities are geographically separated. When you need to manage multiple locations, hours can be lost on the commute. Telehealth and hybrid practices can help create more availability for specialist physicians to provide care, especially in locations with limited access to quality care.
For patient visits that are personal, especially when multiple specialists are involved on the same day, I recommend organizations use artificial intelligence for smart planning. This can help ensure that appointments for imaging studies such as MRIs and CT scans are fully utilized, and can reduce wait times by ensuring that a late or canceled appointment window can be given to another patient waiting for the same exam.
Applications of this type of technology are also 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 pursuit of technology platforms and telehealth will be gradual. Bringing in something new is always a challenge, especially for those who rely on technology to do their jobs, so change management will be a barrier to adoption. It should also be noted that the hurdles to adopting such technology can include IT staff bandwidth, working with legacy systems, and getting the budget for these types of innovations.
Mayo Clinic published the findings of: an investigation from more than 20,000 healthcare providers in 124 institutions. The study, conducted with help from the American Medical Association, evaluated the stress doctors, nurses and administrators experienced during the first year of Covid and found that about 1 in 5 doctors and 2 in 5 nurses planned their practice to leave because of burnout and tension.
As sobering as the results are, we can do something about it. Mayo Clinic researchers suggested that a systemic, collaborative approach could reduce burnout. Part of that approach should be replacing older technology and modernizing equipment and systems to improve the current work environment for our health professionals.
Some of the strategies that can be used include better access to patient data, interoperability between health management systems, and the use of data analytics. The harsh reality is that our healthcare system is in a fragile state, with staff turnover threatening to endanger healthcare. We have a moral obligation to provide health professionals with the tools they need to face this new paradigm.