From a physician who comes from a family of physicians to a wife and mother turned advocate, two people whose lives have been personally changed because of physician burnout share their perspectives on an issue affecting almost half of today’s physicians and heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
by Noreen Butte, MD, part of the HIMSS Physician Committee
Coming from a family of physicians and being one myself, I have seen the demands that are being put on physicians increase tremendously. With the disruption of work-life balance, more and more physicians are reaching the point of burnout.
Primarily, the cause of physician burnout in today’s environment is the loss of control on how physicians practice medicine. Taking care of patients is a complex process. Every physician practices medicine in their own unique manner while following the same set of primary guidelines they learned and the skills they developed after practicing hundreds of hours to become a physician.
Even though there are many factors that lead to the state of physician burnout and are contributing to this reality, I would like to focus on technology as this is an important contributing factor.
Technology that should make physicians’ lives easier has made it more cumbersome. The one glove fits all methodology forces physicians to practice medicine according to the unnatural workflow within their prospective electronic medical records.
Some of the contributing factors include:
Physician satisfaction surveys would help an organization evaluate the current state with their physicians and measure their burnout, but this is barely scratching the surface for a topic that has real ramifications to the wellbeing of caregivers and patients alike.
by Janae Sharp, Founder, Sharp Index; a HIMSS Member
Burnout among physicians is a growing problem, and can lead to medical error and patient death. Two big contributors to physician burnout are work systems that don’t allow for healthy physicians and a lack of coping tools for doctors affected. Unfortunately, after a certain threshold of burnout, physicians may be unwilling to seek help. It is a significant problem not only for the healthcare industry, but for families of physicians – and it’s one I take personally.
A Personal Mission
HIMSS enabled my nonprofit, an organization dedicated to reducing physician suicide through awareness and data science, to get its nonprofit designation. It was created in the memory of John Madsen, my late husband, with whom I have three children. John suffered from severe depression and physician burnout, which were inextricably linked; he died by suicide before completing his residency for pathology.
The nonprofit is part of my personal mission to reduce the epidemic of physician suicide. My children lost their father to suicide 3 years ago. Our mission is to leverage healthcare informatics and use that technology to save lives, with the goal that no children should have to endure the loss that mine have.
Working Toward Solutions
It is complicated to determine how much physician burnout is driven by a broken healthcare delivery system and how electronic health records specifically contribute to that burnout. Many describe burnout as a moral injury and physicians can show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their experiences. Treatment for burnout and improvement can mimic treatment for PTSD.
Physicians as a group are at high risk for burnout - and some of that comes from cultural or systematic issues. Research shows that we can begin to address this issue by giving physicians better tools to cope with stress. Revitalizing medicine should come from the system and the individual. However, many physicians are afraid to seek help, or too mired in depression to know that they are deeply in need of assistance. Anonymous coping tools can give doctors the opportunity to connect with mental health resources without any associated stigma.
We’re also seeking to examine the differences and overlaps between depression and burnout; these currently aren’t well defined, but many of the symptoms are the same. Some criticize using the term “burnout” when talking about physician mental health, especially considering the relatively high risk of suicide for physicians.
There is so much opportunity for improvement.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.
Technology has changed the way providers practice and patients are treated—but still the human touch remains critical in healthcare and in healing. Digital solutions are playing a new role in supporting empathetic care—and that helps patients and caregivers to feel heard, understood, and cared for.
Originally published February 27, 2019; updated January 22, 2021