Physician burnout and our healthcare system – it’s unacceptable
Physicians dedicate themselves to improving and even saving the lives of others.But an epidemic is threatening to extinguish the spark that drove many to pursue medicine in the first place: physician burnout.
Deemed a “public health crisis” in a recent report by Harvard University and Massachusetts medical groups, physician burnout is characterized by increased feelings of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (physicians know what depersonalization is) with decreased feelings of professional competence and accomplishment. According to the report, a 2018 Physicians Foundation Survey of America’s Physicians Practice Patterns and Perspectives found 78 percent of surveyed physicians experienced burnout to some extent. Physician burnout presents in a variety of ways on an individual level, from depression and anxiety, to substance abuse, to deteriorating physical health, and loss of personal relationships. On a more systemic level, burnout not only negatively impacts the quality of patient care but the fundamental trust in the traditional doctor-patient relationship. It also threatens to cause a serious shortage of physicians in the U.S. — up to 120,000 by the year 2030 — as many choose to stop practicing medicine due to physician burnout.
A focus on efficiency versus patient care
Today, the idea of physicians making leisurely house calls is a quaint fiction relegated to old movies and television programs. In today’s “pay for performance” healthcare environment, more than just a few minutes of face-to-face time with your care provider is becoming antiquated as well. Large hospital systems, healthcare providers, and medical conglomerates encourage physicians to see more patients in less time, cut costs, and focus on efficiency rather than care
Electronic Health Records (EHR)
Physicians today spend more time in front of computer screens filling out EHRs than in front of patients. What was once meant to improve efficiency has “effectively turned physicians into the most expensive data entry clerks on the planet.”
While physicians have always put in long hours, worked during holidays and their children’s school plays, and even returned from vacation to care for patients, spending most of their time with inefficient electronic administrative tasks is driving them to professional burnout. In a 2018 report on physician burnout from Geneia, 86 percent of physicians surveyed said “the heightened demand for data reporting to support quality metrics and the business-side of healthcare has diminished my joy in practicing medicine.”
This is a sentiment we continue to hear when speaking with physicians – many even claim to encourage inspiring? (does the writer mean aspiring here??) physicians to chose choose another field of work.
Battle of the Bean Counters
In addition to hours spent on daily EHR tasks, physicians alternately find themselves dealing with healthcare companies bent on protecting their bottom lines instead of patients’ best interests. Many struggle to obtain authorizations for medications and treatments that insurance companies refuse to pay for as “insurance companies and others have discovered the way to get doctors to order fewer tests and medications is to make it a huge hassle to get them.”
The Real Bottom Line
The burnout crisis ultimately boils down to the erosion of the physician-doctor-patient relationship, an essential element at the heart of the medical profession, and the reason behind their passion of many to pursue medicine. Our broken healthcare system puts profits over patients. Thus, this all-important relationship has devolved into a healthcare company-client dynamic focused on processes, regulations, and the bottom line — at the expense of physicians and their patients.
Without returning the focus to physician-patient engagement first and foremost and giving physicians greater autonomy over their profession, physicians will continue to experience burnout in growing numbers as they become increasingly untethered from the joy of practicing medicine.