Week after week, I hear from colleagues in diverse specialties about how exhausted they are from practicing medicine.
It’s no surprise that they are looking for careers outside of medicine. The demands and strain are unsustainable.
So it’s also no surprise that a recent survey showed 40% of primary care clinicians are worried that their field won’t exist in five years and that 21% expect to leave primary care in three years as a result of COVID-19-related burnout.
WhileCOVID-19 is the tipping point, this burnout is the result of the relentless and mounting administrative burden placed on us by electronic medical records (EMRs), coding and billing requirements and prior authorizations. And then it is exacerbated by uncertainty mounting in the primary care field, with new medical care entrants popping up everywhere — from retail pharmacies to digital health startups — aiming to create their own primary care model, replacing rather than working with existing ones.
Where it All Began
The roots of this burden began three decades ago with the advent of an acronym that few outside of the healthcare world know of today — the resource-based relative value scale (RBRVS). This payment system, launched in 1989 and subsequently adopted by Medicare in 1992, led to what we know now as the foundation of the U.S. healthcare payment system.
The RBRVS system assigns procedures a relative value which is adjusted by geographic region. Prices are based on physician work (54%), practice expense (41%) and malpractice expense (5%).
Since the initiation of the scale, the relative value of specialist work has remained much higher than primary care. This disparate compensation, in combination with most health maintenance and patient supportive tasks delegated to primary care, has led to significant fatigue.
I am a 68 year old family physician in rural Maine. This morning I read yet another article about physician burnout, this time in The New York Times. (I’m not linking to it, because they have a “paywall”.)
I did not end up exactly where and how I expected to be at the end of my career, or life in general to be brutally honest. But I am the happiest I have been since the beginning of my journey in medicine.
I have a balance in my life I didn’t have, or even seek, for many years as I juggled patient care, administration, raising a family and pursuing interests that often brought me away from home.
My days in the clinic are a bit shorter than they used to be, but in the past several years I have had to do much more work from home – even more so in the last two. The “half-empty glass” way to look at this is that work has intruded more into my personal life and my home. The “half-full” view is that I can do my computer work when it suits me the best. For one of my clinic positions, I can do charting on an iPad mini in bed, coffe on my nightstand and sleeping dogs at my feet. The clumsier EMR requires a laptop (which in my view can’t be used the way its name might suggest) I sometimes work on in the barn and sometimes on a picnic table in the grass outside.
Ironically, the pandemic has brought me a peace and clarity I probably wouldn’t have achieved otherwise.
I had thought moving back to Caribou for a position with no administrative responsibilities would open up social opportunities I hadn’t allowed myself for the last few years. I expected to become involved with the Swedish community here, connecting more with neighbors and other horse owners, and so on.
But the lockdown forced me to sit more with my own thoughts, my own feelings and memories. It forced me to consider, not for the first time but again, that in this unpredictable life, the only sure thing is that I am me and I am where I am.
Primary care doctors don’t usually operate any sophisticated medical instruments or perform any advanced procedures. But there is still art in what we do. We take care of ordinary ailments in ordinary people and that can be done well or not so well. There is no obvious glamor in it, but when our prescriptions, basic procedures or simple advice help people feel better, we live up to our own and our patients’ hopes and expectations – and some of the time, we even exceed them.
Art is art, regardless of the medium or subject. Weren’t the old Dutch masters’ most appreciated paintings depictions of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances? Not every artist gets to paint the Sistine Chapel.
So many things in our culture are at the two extremes of poorly done and exquisite: fast fashion or haute couture, drive-up burgers or five star restaurants. Fewer things are made with care by craftspeople for individual users. Medicine needs to be more like that in order to bring real healing in many conditions.
In our everyday encounters with our patients, we are often distracted by things other than what they expect or hope to get from us. We have agendas imposed on us for preventive care and public health purposes. It is sometimes hard to do your best if you can’t concentrate on the issue at hand. Art requires focus. It is not a casual endeavor. It requires attention to detail, just as much as a vision of the big idea. It is – or should be – for each of us, in order to do our best, to find the balance between those two aspects of our work.
The Soul of Medicine is Connecting as Humans
We are not technicians. We treat the whole person, because most things in primary care are diseases that affect more than just one organ. We now also, again (historically), accept that diseases of the body may have their root causes in what we call the soul. In order to know and treat another person, we must show our own. Only if we do that will we learn enough to be of any real help to the patient who hopes to trust us enough to take our advice. We must create connection.
Burnout among healthcare professionals is at an all-time
high. Its drivers include longer work hours, the push to see more patients,
more scrutiny by administrators, and loss of control over our practice. We seem
to spend more time with the electronic medical record and less time
face-to-face with our patients.
I have faced burnout personally. My son passed away at the
age of 29, which was beyond painful. At the same time, I felt burdened by the
growing number and complexity of metrics by which I was judged at work. Days in
the operating room and intensive care unit seemed more and more exhausting, and
my patience was becoming shorter and shorter. I was fortunate to have had a long-standing
meditation practice as well as sabbatical time that I used to decompress and
re-evaluate my career. Many of us are not so lucky. More than half of
physicians have serious signs of burnout, and more than one physician commits
suicide every day.
So many of us feel burned out these days because in our
rapidly changing profession we are asked to do more for less and with
inadequate resources. We suffer from exhaustion, self-criticism, and worry
about what will happen next to our practice, our families, and ourselves. If we
want to save our practices, patients, marriages- even our lives, we must
acquire personal resilience.
Fortunately, we can increase our resilience and happiness and reverse burnout by embracing a few simple principles—Gratitude, Acceptance, Intention, and Nonjudgment (GAIN)—that we can put into motion in our everyday lives at the hospital, at home, or wherever we are.
The term “moral
injury” is a term originally applied to soldiers as a way to help explain
PTSD and, more recently, to physicians as a way to help explain physician burnout.
The concept is that moral injury is what can happen to people when “perpetrating,
failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held
moral beliefs and expectations.”
I think healthcare
generally has a bad case of moral injury.
Melissa Bailey, writing for Kaiser Health News, looked at moral injury from the standpoint of emergency room physicians. One physician decried how “the real priority is speed and money and not our patients’ care.” Another made a broader charge: “The health system is not set up to help patients. It’s set up to make money.” He urged that physicians seek to understand “how decisions made at the systems level impact how we care about patients” — so they can “stand up for what’s right.”
If you are like most doctors, you are sick of hearing about burnout. I know I am. There is a big debate on whether burnout is real or whether physicians are suffering from something more sinister like moral injury or human rights violations. That doesn’t matter. In the end, no matter what name we give the problem, the real issue is that physicians are in fact suffering. We are suffering a lot. Some of us—around one physician per day—are forced to alleviate their suffering by taking their own life. Each year, a million patients lose their physicians to suicide. Many more physicians suffer in silence and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in order to function.
We are losing more physicians each year to early retirement or alternate careers. There are an increasing number of coaches and businesses whose single purpose is to help doctors find their side gigs and transition out of medicine. This loss comes at a time of an already depleted workforce that will contribute to massive physician shortages in the future. Perhaps even more troubling is that those physicians who remain in medicine are often desperate to get out. It is the rare physician these days that recommends a career in medicine to their own children. We now have a brain drain of the brightest students who would rather work on Wall Street than in a hospital.
As a physician trained in positive psychology, I have been committed to helping other physicians and students improve their well-being. The focus on well-being is a welcome change in medicine. But is it enough?
I looked at a free book chapter from Harvard Businesses Review today and saw a striking graph illustrating what we’re up against in primary care today and I remembered a post I wrote eight years ago about burnout skills.
Some things we do, some challenges we overcome, energize us or even feed our souls because of how they resonate with our true selves. Think of mastering something like a challenging hobby. We feel how each success or step forward gives us more energy.
Other things we do are more like rescuing a situation that was starting to fall apart and making a heroic effort to set things right. That might feed our ego, but not really our soul, and it can exhaust us if we do this more than once in a very great while.
In medicine these days, we seem to do more rescuing difficult situations than mastering an art that inspires and rewards us: The very skills that make us good at our jobs can be the ones that make us burn out.
Doctors are so good at solving problems and handling emergencies that we often fall into a trap of doing more and more of that just because we are able to, even though it’s not always the right thing to do – even though it costs us energy and consumes a little bit of life force every time we do it. And it’s not always the case that we are asked to do this. We are pretty good at putting ourselves in such situations because of what we call our work ethic.
The 2019 Health 2.0 conference just wrapped up
after several days of compelling presentations, panels, and networking. As in
the past, attendees were a cross section of the industry: providers, payers,
health IT (HIT) companies, investors, and others who are passionate about
innovation in healthcare.
One of the more refreshing themes of the
conference was an emphasis on how health IT can enable the delivery of
services. This is a welcome perspective as too often organizations believe that
simply deploying technology will solve their problems. In my 30+ years in
healthcare, I’ve never seen that work. What does work is careful attention to
the iron triad of people, process, and technology. Neglect one of these and you
will fall short of your goals. Framing opportunities as services that are
enabled and enhanced by technology helps us avoid the common pitfall of
believing “Tech = Solution” and forces us to account for process and people.
Provider Burn-out and Health IT
Several sessions focused on the impact technology is having on end-users, especially clinicians. One session featured a “reverse-pitch” where practicing physicians “pitched” to health IT experts on the challenges they face, especially with EHRs, and what they need in order to do their job and have a life. This was summed up elegantly by a physician participant as, “Please make all the stupid sh*t stop!” There’s increasing evidence that the deployment of EHRs is a major factor for clinician burnout and the impassioned pleas of the attendees resonated throughout the conference.
Other sessions explored how to we might address these problems with improvements in user-interface design, workflow, and interoperability. Demonstrations of advanced technologies like voice-driven interfaces, artificial intelligence, enhanced communications, and smart devices show where we are headed and hold out the promise of a more efficient and pleasing HIT for providers and patients.
It’s no secret that healthcare providers are among the
hardest working of all professionals – their skill and intelligence are matched
only by their creativity and commitment to their patients. But the healthcare
IT sector, while it has made an effort to assist, has failed to support our
providers – doctors, nurses and caregivers – with technology solutions that
meet the increasing demands for better, faster, more efficient patient healthcare
delivery. Instead, we have cast these providers in the dark, forcing them to
function blindly, devoid of necessary information, pushing many of them to the
brink of what they can withstand as professionals, pushing them to burnout.
The thing about providers is that, in addition to being
hardworking, dedicated, and outstanding professionals, they are incredibly
creative and innovative, willing to embrace new technologies and workflows – as
long as they can add value to their patients. So how about we – the broader healthcare
IT solutions vendor community – focus on delivering technologies that don’t
force them to compromise care and efficiency for the sake of security, or
compliance and access to data?
We need to do so to address an industry crisis. Physician
burnout is on the rise, and it’s increasingly clear that overworked providers have
reached the breaking point. They spend valuable minutes battling technology on
virtual desktops, mobile devices, biomedical equipment, and clinical SaaS
applications – typing in usernames and passwords, loading various apps, and
more. All the while, standing beside a patient that is desperately seeking
Right now, nearly one-half of all physicians (44 percent) report
having feelings of burnout (according to Medscape‘s 2019 National
Physicians Burnout & Depression Report). While these numbers should
alarm everyone, what the healthcare IT industry should be especially concerned
about is that a leading cause of this physician burnout are tools that hinder provider
productivity. Instead of simplifying work for doctors and nurses, technology
tools are having the opposite effect. Isn’t technology supposed to make things
Burnout is one of the biggest problems physicians face today. We believe that addressing it early — in medical school — through coaching gives physicians the tools they need to maintain balance and meaning in their personal and professional lives.
We say that after reading comments from participants in our coaching program, “A Whole New Doctor,” developed at Georgetown University School of Medicine. This program, born almost by chance, provides executive coaching and leadership training to medical students, who are exactly the right audience for it.
Medical students tend to begin their education as optimistic 20-somethings, eager to learn and eager to see patients. After spending one or two years on the academic study of medicine, they move to the wards where they observe the hidden curriculum — a set of norms, values, and behaviors conveyed in implicit and explicit ways in the clinical learning environment.
In the hospital, convenience and expediency, deference to specialists, and factual knowledge tend to replace the holistic and patient-centered care that is lauded during the preclinical years. This new culture nudges some students to the brink of burnout and depression. Some consider suicide.