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How to curtail clinician burnout in 2024

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The high rate of burnout in the healthcare industry can have far-reaching, negative consequences.

burnout | © famveldman - stock.adobe.com

© famveldman - stock.adobe.com

Clinician burnout is a serious problem for front-line healthcare workers. Although many jobs come with stress, our US medical professionals, particularly physicians and nurses, have a higher risk of burnout compared with other professions.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has been active in working to understand and curtail burnout. Initiatives like STEPS Forward, Physician Well-Being Program, and the Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians as well as the American Nurses Association-led Nurse Burnout Prevention Program and Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation have helped members understand underlying causes of this issue and implement corrective action.

I’ve been fortunate to work with many front-line clinical professionals over my career. I’ve seen what burnout can do, and I appreciate the significance of the steps that must be taken to improve clinician well-being.

Snowball effect

About a decade ago, and years prior to the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, the AMA shined a light on a few of the leading causes of burnout. Among these, the group found that the lack of modern technology placed a particular strain on front-line health workers. Outdated (‘legacy’) equipment and platforms created friction in care. Access to this technology often required multiple technical steps. Collaboration and communication between clinical team members looked more like 1980 than the first decade of the twenty-first century.

On top of this, clinical access to and interaction with data was tough. Information siloes were the norm, creating challenges for clinical team members to both share and access information across platforms. Lastly, as the US moved to fully realize the Affordable Care Act with electronic medical records, the very workflows that were designed to improve patient-clinician experience did the opposite. Many clinical team members would report spending hours at night entering notes, responding to inbox requests and completing tasks in electronic medical records (EMRs) and electronic health records (EHRs). This ‘pajama time,’ after-hours work took mental and physical energy from clinicians.

When the pandemic upended America’s healthcare system in March 2020, front-line healthcare worker burnout snowballed. Along with the pre-existing issues that had already impacted clinicians, front-line workers now had to cope with extreme and sudden influx of patients, rapidly changing treatment protocols, acute staffing shortages leading to extended shifts, fear of exposure, and significant physical, mental, and emotional strain. Taken together, the burnout rate compounded — particularly for medical professionals in hospitals.

Post COVID-19 – we need a plan

While the efforts made by the AMA and others should not be diminished — before, during, and after the pandemic, we are still facing dangerous levels of burnout in 2024. For example, The Physicians Foundation’s 2023 Survey of America’s Current and Future Physicians found 60% of physicians and residents and 70% of medical students often experience feelings of burnout. Experts even suggest there is a post-COVID variant of clinician dissatisfaction dubbed “pandemic-informed burnout.”

Experts have noted that we need a new plan and a new outlook post COVID-19, and I agree. I would also argue that technology should arguably be at the core of this strategy. Let me explain

In the case of healthcare – and specifically the clinical, provider organizations, many would agree that these organizations do not look, operate, or invest like other industries. And the same can be said for digital transformation initiatives in clinical and provider organizations.

Nevertheless, these organizations rely on technology – and are increasingly doing so not just to treat patients, but to remain operationally efficient. As a result, provider organizations and their leaders should carefully consider how technology can support clinical team members. Yes – driving efficiency is critical, but can technology help (or hinder) burnout?

Digital transformation often involves process improvement, and rationalizing systems and processes that support the business. In the case of provider organizations, there is an interesting and promising ‘trifecta’ solution of enhancing efficiency, improving patient-clinician time, and reducing burnout through improved, advanced prior authorization and patient relationship management software. Although these solutions may not be glamorous, they can reduce time spent handling administrative tasks and dealing with insurance hurdles. These solutions will require more than goodwill to deploy – and frankly a significant change management effort to drive provider-payor collaboration. As the 21st Century Cures Act continues to rollout, federally funded mandates may also help drive these solutions.

Digital transformation also includes looking at what’s next, what’s possible, and should involve some degree of pragmatism for where to go and when. In the case of clinician burnout, an emerging and old but new technology is ambient voice. Using advanced language processing, ontological modeling and inferences, products are helping give 1:1 time back to the patient and clinician. Those average fourteen minutes of time spent during an annual wellness check can be spent talking vs. typing into the EMR. Clinicians are reporting reduced ‘pajama time’ charting at night after dinner, and able to take the transcription of a visit through completion vs. doing the same from scratch. Artificial intelligence has also helped blaze the trail through the application of advanced algorithm integration for EMR inbox review and draft responses.

The fortifying clinicians for the future

It is taking years for healthcare experts to combat clinician burnout, and unfortunately, we have to admit to ourselves that our industry is not much closer to stemming physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion and professional dissatisfaction for thousands of American front-line medical staff. With an aging population that will require more medical care and an ongoing healthcare worker shortage, it’s imperative for healthcare and technology leaders to lean in and directly address clinician burnout.

We rely on highly trained professionals to care for our well-being, but what is being — and what should be done — to help them? We need to consider one facet of this challenge – technology – and what we can do to support the reduction and eventual elimination of burnout. This is not a panacea, but it is within our reach to address. Practices, healthcare systems, and those providing care need a strong partnership with technologists to forge a meaningful path. Together, we’ll get there.

Aaron Aude is Director of National Healthcare Insights and Data at Sogeti, part of Capgemini

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