The Cost of Physician Burnout

June 7, 2019

The surprising costs to the health system that extend beyond the pocketbook.

On the heels of the World Health Organization acknowledging the growing concern around workplace stress, healthcare executives need to be more mindful of physician burnout, according to experts.

“Burnout is being called a public health crisis because it affects the well-being of clinicians, their families, and patients, which in turn impacts clinical quality and financial outcomes. Burnout also leads to clinicians leaving the field sooner, and discourages the next generation from entering or remaining in the field to fill that void,” says Bridget Duffy, MD, chief medical officer of Vocera Communications, Inc., a San Jose, California provider of clinical communication and work flow solutions.

“Healthcare execs need to pay attention to this issue,” says Jay R. Anders, MD, chief medical officer, Medicomp Systems, Inc., whose data engine augments EHR systems and clinical workflows by transforming complex, unstructured clinical data into actionable insights at the point of care.

“The biggest and most important reason is that stressed physicians are more likely to make mistakes in patient care,” Anders says. “This was first recognized in the training of residents. When residents were stressed, they made more diagnostic and treatment errors. This can also happen with practicing physicians; the only difference is that residents have immediate oversight, whereas practicing physicians do not. In addition, physician burnout can lead to seasoned, experienced physicians leaving the practice of medicine and seeking other, less stressful endeavors.”

Related: From MACRA To Burnout: How Oncologists Really Feel

In addition to causing negative clinical outcomes, physician burnout does not come cheap to the U.S. healthcare system-approximately $4.6 billion a year, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

There are eight ways that healthcare executives can help curb burnout:

  • Give physicians real tools to make their lives easier. “The data tsunami is real, and physicians need help managing it,” Anders says.

  • Relieve physicians of as many of the administrative tasks as possible. “An example of this would be to leverage data gathered in the practice of medicine so that it can be used behind the scenes to deal with requirements such as Quality Payment Programs (QPPs) and Hierarchical Condition Coding (HCC) for Medicare Advantage,” Anders says.

  • Recognize each individual’s limit. “Each physician has a capacity that, if exceeded, will degrade their performance,” Anders says. “It is great to incent hard work with increased compensation, but that also has a limit. Be flexible and monitor the quality of patient care in relation to the number of patients seen. When quality starts to decline, you have exceeded a physician’s capacity.”

  • Make staff well-being a top strategic priority.

  • Change the conversation to one that acknowledges that we have a national health system in distress caused by systems issues versus one that considers burnout a personal psychological failing, according to Duffy.

  • Remove systems issues that are creating administrative and bureaucratic hassles; and influence policy change to improve and standardize these processes.

  • Deploy technologies that simplify workflows and restore human connections. 

  • Use metrics that assesses clinician well-being before and after a new technology or process is implemented to ensure that clinicians can deliver high-quality care with compassion. “These metrics for humanity will enable hospital leaders to design an ideal healing and working environment for patients, families, physicians and other care team members. If we put science behind the human experience, we can accelerate change and truly transform healthcare,” Duffy says.