A new study from InCrowd paints a disturbing picture about provider burnout and its effect on patient care. The survey of 320 PCPs and 319 specialists reveals that 79 percent of primary care physicians (PCPs) describe themselves as burned out, as do 57 percent of specialists. That’s a sharp rise from the 45 percent of doctors that reported burnout in an American Medical Association (AMA) survey in 2011.
Earlier this summer we published an article about telemedicine’s advantages in boosting provider productivity. The InCrowd results echoed our examination of provider challenges, noting that almost 60 percent of physicians listed bureaucratic burdens as their primary burnout factor.
In response to these burdens, some hospitals have offered yoga or stress management classes or mindfulness training. But those offerings do little to alleviate physician workloads – and survey providers named three tactical initiatives as most effective in easing their stress:
- Improving workflow optimization: 46 percent
- Greater schedule flexibility: 45 percent
- Wellness support: 41 percent
At a glance, those three initiatives may seem disconnected. But they share a common thread: telemedicine.
The Risks and Repercussions of Struggling Providers
Physician burnout goes beyond physical exhaustion and a sense of ennui. The costs are high for both hospital budgets and human lives. One report found the U.S. spends $4.6 billion on costs related to physician burnout each year. Doctors struggling with burnout are more than twice as likely to commit a medical error — errors that can be linked to 100,000 to 200,000 patient deaths a year.
Another factor is the shortage of 90,000 doctors the U.S. faces by 2025. While that estimate is largely based on the anticipated retirement of older PCPs, the exit of younger doctors could exacerbate the shortage: InCrowd survey respondents in their 30s and 40s reported the highest rates of burnout at 74 percent.
There’s also provider mental health to consider. In an era focused on patient-centered language and whole-person care, provider wellness isn’t quite as vocal a dialogue. Yet half of all doctors report depression, exhaustion or a sense of failure. Medical students have a suicide rate three times higher than the general population, while one physician dies by suicide every day.
Solving Provider Stress with Virtual Health
To address physician burdens, healthcare leaders have expanded the Triple Aim, focused on improving patient care, improving population health and reducing the cost of care. The Quadruple Aim contains a fourth measure to help providers regain purpose and resilience.
While approaches to the measure vary, one solution hits the trifecta of flexibility, wellness and workflow optimization: virtual health.
- Because providers don’t need to be in the office to provide remote care, they can work from home and offer flexible appointment hours that foster work-life balance.
- By seeing more patients in less time, telemedicine can put hours back in every provider’s day and help lighten their administrative load.
- Hospitals can better manage capacity, creating smoother workflows and balancing patient demand with provider availability to ensure doctors aren’t overworked.
- Specialists can expand their geographic service coverage without driving to different counties or juggling workloads at different hospitals and clinics.
- Providers can inject variety and meaning into their work by caring for disaster survivors or underserved patients in rural communities.
Just as the well-being of pilots, bus drivers and air traffic controllers can have an impact on passenger safety, provider well-being is directly tied to patient outcomes. Healthier doctors benefit everyone. Telemedicine can’t solve every stressor in every healthcare environment; clinical, IT, EHR and other leaders must do their part in lightening provider workloads. But virtual care delivery can offer providers higher life quality – and reconnect them to their original motivations for pursuing medical careers. It’s time for healthcare leaders to move in that direction before our best clinicians are driven out of medicine.