Some things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Physician well-being, morale, and burnout seem to be getting more attention in both the medical and the lay press.
  • Leaders from 10 prestigious health systems and the CEO of the American Medical Association wrote a March 2017 post in the Health Affairs Blog titled “Physician Burnout is a Public Health Crisis: A Message To Our Fellow Health Care CEOs.”
  • I’m now regularly hearing and reading mention of the “Quadruple Aim.” The “Triple Aim,” first described in 2008, is the pursuit of excellence in 1) patient experience – both quality of care and patient satisfaction; 2) population health; and 3) cost reduction. The November/December 2014 Annals of Family Medicine included an article recommending “that the Triple Aim be expanded to a Quadruple Aim by adding the goal of improving the work life of health care providers, including clinicians and staff.”1
  • The CEO at a community hospital near me chose to make addressing physician burnout one of his top priorities and tied success in the effort to his own compensation bonus.
  • In the course of my consulting work with hospitalist groups across the country, I’ve noticed a meaningful increase in the number of our colleagues who seem deeply unhappy with their work and/or burned out. The “Hospitalist Morale Index” may be a worthwhile way for a group to conduct an assessment.2
  • I’m concerned that many other hospital care givers, including RNs, social workers, and others, are experiencing levels of distress and/or burnout that might be similar to that of physicians. From where I sit, they seem to be getting less attention, and I can’t tell if that is just because I’m not as immersed in their world or if it reflects reality. It’s pretty disappointing if it’s the latter.

For the most part, I think the causes of hospitalist distress and burnout are very similar to that of doctors in other specialties, and interventions to address the problem can be similar across specialties. Yet, each specialty probably differs in ways that are important to keep in mind.

In the September 2015 edition of this column, I shared my opinion that electronic health records (EHRs) cause stress for hospitalists only in part because they’re difficult to use. The bigger issue is that EHR adoption often leads doctors in most other specialties to take a step back from direct care in the hospital, leaving the hospitalists to manage much of the documentation and ordering that might have been done by other doctors previously. At my hospital, our terrific rheumatologists stopped providing hospital care altogether since their low volume of hospital work didn’t justify the effort required to learn to use the EHR.

Hospitalists also bear a huge burden related to observation status. Doctors in most other specialties rarely face complex decisions regarding whether observation is the right choice and are not so often the target of patient/family frustration and anger related to it.

Those seeking to address hospitalist burnout and well-being specifically should keep in mind these uniquely hospitalist issues. I think of them as a chronic disease to manage and mitigate, since “curing” them (making them go away entirely) is probably impossible for the foreseeable future.

What to do?

An Internet search on physician burnout, or other terms related to well-being, will yield more articles with advice to address the problem than you’ll ever have time to read. Trying to read all of them would likely lead to burnout! I think interventions can be divided into two broad categories: organizational efforts and personal efforts.

Like the 10 CEOs mentioned above, health care leaders should acknowledge physician distress and burnout as a meaningful issue that can impede organizational performance and that investments to address it can have a meaningful return on investment. The Health Affairs Blog post listed 11 things the CEOs committed to doing. It’s a list anyone working on this issue should review.

Doctors at The Mayo Clinic have published a great deal of research on physician burnout. In the March 7, 2017, JAMA, (summarized in a YouTube video) they describe several worthwhile organizational changes, as well as some personal strategies.3 They wrote about their experiences with interventions such as a deliberate curriculum to train doctors in self-care (self-reflection, mindfulness, etc.) in a series of one-hour lectures over several months.4 In November 2016, they published a meta-analysis of interventions to address burnout.5

In total, all of the worthwhile recommendations to address burnout leave me feeling like they’re a lot of work, and any individual intervention may not be as helpful as hoped, so that the best way to approach this is with a collection of interventions. In many ways, it is similar to the problem of readmissions: There is a lot of research out there, it’s hard to prove that any single intervention really works, and success lies in implementing a broad set of interventions. And success doesn’t equate to eliminating readmissions, only reducing them.

Coda: Is a sabbatical uniquely valuable for hospitalists?

I think a sabbatical might be a good idea for hospitalists. It also seems practical for other doctors, such as radiologists, anesthesiologists, and ED doctors, who don’t have 1:1 continuity relationships with patients. However, it is problematic for primary care doctors and specialists who need to maintain continuity relationships with patients and referring doctors that could be disrupted by a lengthy absence.

I’m not sure a sabbatical would reduce burnout much on its own, but, if properly structured, it seems very likely to reduce staffing turnover, and the sabbatical could be spent in ways that help rejuvenate interest and satisfaction in our work rather than simply taking a long vacation to travel and play golf, etc. It should probably be at least 3 months and better if it lasts a year. A common arrangement is that a doctor becomes eligible for the sabbatical after 10 years and is paid half of her usual compensation while away. I’d like to see more hospitalist groups do this.

This article originally appeared on: The Hospitalist

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