My particular primary-care doctor has been my medical ‘counselor’ for about 25 years. I visit her at least annually for my routine physicals, but have frequently consulted with her about obtaining referrals to specialists outside her scope of practice. I see her because I have unquestionable trust in her abilities to put my interests above any other outside influences.
On numerous occasions, I have confided in her about my family medical history, specifically having lost two siblings to different cancers. Through her own tears, I have come to accept her as yet ‘another sister’ to me – my fifth! Her compassion for my well-being is both genuine and reassuring. Suffice it to say, I have the utmost admiration for the medical professionals who work diligently on a daily basis to care for patients.
Much of what I have written in the past, whether through blogs or op-ed pieces, is directed to help educate the general public about the problems (and potential solutions) of our healthcare system. Not only is the healthcare service delivery we seek local, it is also very personal, especially as it relates to the relationships we have with the doctors, nurses and other caregivers in our communities.
But what patients may not understand is the ‘backroom’ in which clinicians are required to perform their daily work. It is within this ‘black box’ of their work environment that their human frailty may become tested and subsequently exposed, negatively impacting their own mental well-being, and possibly undermining patient care.
The opioid epidemic has become a large concern of our local and national conscience. But another troublesome public health crisis persists in our society, and it greatly impacts each of us, whether we know it or not – physician and caregiver burnout.
Physician and caregiver burnout have troubling symptoms, such as depression, exhaustion, dissatisfaction and a sense of failure. Losing the passion or purpose to serve others can be a powerful setback that steals the joy of practicing a noble profession. If left unaddressed, this burnout will erode the caregivers’ mental health and adversely impact patient safety.
The nurse burnout rates are reported to be between 35 and 45 percent. The burnout rates also vary by specialty. For example, specialties with the highest rates of burnout include1:
- Urology – 54 percent
- Neurology – 53 percent
- Physical medicine and rehabilitation – 52 percent
- Internal medicine – 49 percent
- Emergency medicine – 48 percent
Quite understandably, when surveyed about the causes of burnout, physicians point to a plethora of bureaucratic tasks that include too much government and private insurance interference, too little pay, too many office hours, and too much time spent in front of the computer screen using electronic health records that are more about submitting the correct procedure codes to get paid by private, Medicaid and Medicare payers. Completing administrative and insurance requirements takes precious time away from providing face-to-face care to patients – perhaps twice as much time compared to treating patients.
According to an October 23, 2019 report, “Taking Action Against Burnout: A Systems Approach to Professional Well-Being,” the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) reports that 35 to 54 percent of nurses and physicians have substantial symptoms of burnout, while medical students and residents have symptoms of burnout between 45 percent and 60 percent. A recent Mayo Clinic report confirms similar findings, suggesting that 44 to 54 percent of physicians report having ‘burnout’ symptoms. A newly-released study by Medscape reported that almost half of physicians would take a pay cut to work fewer hours, and more than a quarter of physicians would give up between $20,000 and $50,000 per year in salary.
Potential Solutions to Burnout?
There is no clear consensus on what solutions will quickly ‘fix’ this growing crisis. Physicians want or favor the simplicity of administrative requirements from key payers, more relaxed insurance regulations, more stream-lined technology that allows caregivers to spend less time on computers and more time with patients. But the devil is clearly in the details.
The above-mentioned NAM report was prepared by the Committee on Systems Approaches to Improve Patient Care by Supporting Clinician Well-Being. This committee made six recommendations to serve as guidelines to help healthcare organizations design and implement systems to mitigate the factors that contribute to burnout:
- Create positive work environments
- Create positive learning environments
- Reduce administrative burden
- Enable technology solutions
- Provide support to clinicians and learners
- Invest in research (on clinician professional well-being)
Afterall, don’t we want our own doctors to be healthy, too?
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