Three keys to ease provider tension

Achieve simplicity, efficiency, and balance in your practice.

Being a physician comes with certain baseline stressors. For most, the culprits are pretty familiar: patient care responsibilities, high debt loads that compel long working hours, system complexities, and mounting administrative chores. COVID-19 has added yet another layer to the burdens that already contribute to physician burnout.

As an emergency physician, walking into work every day for the last 12 months has felt like a roll of the dice. It’s been difficult to witness the effects of a disease that at times seems to affect people randomly. Despite what we know about COVID-19 risk factors, there are perplexing cases of severe disease with no apparent reasons. It’s a bit unsettling, especially given the realization that you may be putting yourself and others at risk.

Although we’re now, hopefully, turning the corner on COVID-19, many providers have endured significant mental health pressure trying to manage the pandemic’s challenges 24/7—both at work and home.

Whether the problem of physician burnout gets better or worse in the coming months will be driven largely by the provider community. The correlation between mental wellness, job satisfaction, and burnout has come to the forefront, but many physicians will tell you they don’t need wellness support. After all, we’re the ones trained to keep people well. That’s one reason practices sometimes see low engagement with programs designed to improve wellness.

In addition to wellness programs, another way for practices to reduce physician burnout is to lessen systemic stressors. In other words, to create a working environment where physicians are more likely to feel satisfied and less likely to burn out. While there’s not much practices can do about patient care responsibilities or debt loads, one powerful solution is to reduce administrative burdens and restore a degree of autonomy over physicians’ work/life balance.

Restore efficiency and balance

Taking care of patients is what gets physicians up in the morning, not dealing with complex technologies and administrative tasks. Over time, however, both have increasingly shifted onto physicians’ shoulders. Electronic health records (EHRs) and payment paperwork are just two examples. In many ways, tasks like those feel like death by a thousand paper cuts.

There are huge advantages to technology in healthcare, of course. But just like anything, if a tool isn’t used properly, it can do more damage than it does good. Technology must improve the functionality of physicians and practices without increasing physician workload.

The use of scribes is a good illustration. Scribes leverage technology in a way that makes it easier and faster for physicians to do what they love and were trained to do, without forcing them to sit in front of a keyboard.

Similarly, scheduling technology offers opportunities to help physicians achieve a better work/life balance. As noted in a recent perspective piece in The New England Journal of Medicine,

“…giving doctors flexibility in their schedule to allow for individual styles of practice and patient interaction was one of the few system solutions that reduced burnout. Flexibility in scheduling recognizes that both patients and doctors are individuals…”

Physician scheduling is a complex problem, with different wrinkles for different specialties. The right workload intensity varies from provider to provider; however, technology can be used to create fair and equitable schedules that honor physicians’ requests while maintaining parameters set by the practice and by each physician. The flexibility of such systems allows a more holistic approach to work/life balance than rigid, multi-week scheduling templates.

In fact, practices that use a single platform to optimize multiple resources—including clinical staff, non-clinical staff and room resources—can improve two important contributors to physician satisfaction: efficiency and balance. Providers able to efficiently move from room to room while at work can do more of what they enjoy—care for patients—with less frustration. Likewise, giving physicians the ability to easily view, accept, and trade shifts increases their efficiency while also allowing them to better balance time at work with time away.

Satisfy physicians, patients, and practices

It’s known that people who are happy and enjoy their jobs tend to do better at their jobs. Physicians are no different; we take better care of our patients when we’re in a better mood. Reducing burnout is the right thing to do to ensure physicians’ mental wellness and improve the quality of patient care.

Technology solutions can offer sizeable advantages for overcoming administrative burdens such as scheduling to reduce physician burnout. But technology must come with a caveat: that it makes processes better and doesn’t completely overburden physicians. Using technology to make it easier for physicians to feel a sense of autonomy over their work/life balance is one-way practices can make substantive strides toward easing provider tensions and reducing burnout.

About the Author

Pat Hunt, MD, is the chief medical officer of QGenda.