Two years of living in a global pandemic, and approaching year three, has put a persistent strain on our healthcare providers and simultaneously contributed to the Great Resignation. While burnout was already a complex issue for the healthcare industry prior to the pandemic, a mass exodus of employees has wreaked havoc and contributed to inadequate staffing, impacting the quality of patient care as a result. The Great Resignation has only underscored the issue of physician burnout and highlighted the urgency for addressing it.
I sat down with Jessica Sweeney-Platt, vice president of research and editorial strategy at Athenahealth, to discuss the state of physician burnout in the United States and the role technology plays in helping to mitigate burnout and driving more patient-centric care. Athenahealth is a provider of network-enabled software for medical groups and health systems nationwide and aims to improve everything from electronic health record management to revenue cycle management to patient engagement. We discussed the key contributors to physician burnout, the implications of unchecked burnout and how technology can help.
Gary Drenik: What are the main contributors to physician burnout and how has the pandemic aggravated these factors?
Jessica Sweeney-Platt: Physician burnout was a pervasive concern within the healthcare industry long before the pandemic. And as we enter year three of the pandemic, the well-being and happiness of healthcare workers remains a hot-button issue. According to a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics Survey, healthcare workers’ happiness with work-life balance in their profession steadily decreased from April 2021 to January 2022.
The underlying contributors of physician burnout, many of which have been exacerbated since the start of the pandemic, include long hours and significant administrative burden related to patient care documentation. The physically and emotionally taxing nature of the profession is a key driver as well. In the same Prosper Insights & Analytics survey, when asked about the impact of the pandemic lockdown and stay-at-home orders on their mental or emotional well-being, 30% of healthcare workers said they have become more anxious and 21% said they have become more depressed. In volume-based care models, physicians often have to rush through patient appointments, sacrifice their work-life balance, and spend significant amounts of time on administrative tasks that have little to do with patient care. This is concerning because more time spent on tasks outside of direct patient care can lead physicians to feel less satisfied in their work.
Drenik: How can technology help to reduce time spent on documentation to empower physicians to do what they do best – care for patients?
Sweeney-Platt: The right technology should improve and simplify a clinician’s workflow by providing a more data-driven, connected experience, which places the focus back on the patient. Technologies like AI play a significant role in reducing excessive administrative tasks. For example, virtual scribes that not only understand voice commands, but the entirety of provider-patient conversations, and then surface information to the provider when they need it, can reduce documentation time. Another way I’m seeing AI reduce time on administrative tasks is with data analysis capabilities. AI can intake the insurmountable amounts of unstructured data that flows through the United States healthcare system on a daily basis and automatically extract key information to patient charts. This type of technology empowers healthcare providers with access to the most up-to-date and relevant patient information, eliminating the burden of manually sifting through mountains of paperwork. Interoperability within health IT systems is another way technology plays a role in reducing burnout. Uniting data and creating technology that gives providers the full view of a patient’s history and care enables physicians to provide the best care possible and shifts the focus to value-based care. There is still a long way to go, but I am optimistic that improved collaboration and interoperability would improve provider satisfaction and patient outcomes.
Drenik: How can the industry address the concept known as ‘pajama time’?
Sweeney-Platt: The time physicians spend either at home or after hours on catching up on documentation work has been dubbed ‘pajama time,’ and it can be a significant driver for burnout. The reality is that due to increased workloads and outdated EHR and technology systems, physicians are required to spend far too much time on documentation work that could be streamlined by the right technology. To help reduce pajama time, the industry needs to lean into technologies that simplify documentation workflows. Additionally, an industry-wide shift to the value-based care model can significantly reduce pajama time and ultimately feelings of burnout. With a value-based care model over a volume-based care model, providers experience smaller patient volumes and longer visits, limiting the need for so much documentation work outside of patient appointment hours.
Drenik: What role has telehealth played in the Great Resignation across the healthcare continuum and what role do you see it playing in the future of healthcare?
Sweeney-Platt: The pandemic spurred the widespread adoption of telehealth out of necessity, but we’ll continue to see telehealth play a role in improving healthcare delivery and streamlining the overall experience for both providers and patients. Additionally, telehealth has served as an important solution to the chaos caused by the labor shortage, as it can enable greater scheduling flexibility and autonomy for clinicians. I expect telehealth to remain a mainstream method of care – especially as post-pandemic legislation championing telehealth continues – and we’ll continue to witness innovative ways that providers leverage telehealth to improve care delivery in the weeks, months, and years to come.
Drenik: Are there regional differences or gendered differences when it comes to physician burnout?
Sweeney-Platt: Female physicians are significantly more susceptible to feelings of burnout. Athenahealth conducted a Physician Sentiment survey in 2020 and found that women experienced burnout more frequently than men. More than half of the women surveyed reported having regular feelings of burnout compared to only 43% of men. Interestingly, there is also a correlation between the feelings of burnout and administrative documentation time in EHR systems. After evaluating how more than 14,000 clinicians utilized EHR systems, we saw similar gender patterns; across specialists and regardless of the clinical role, female clinicians spent more documentation time in EHR systems outside of patient appointments than male clinicians. There were also regional differences. Clinicians in the Northeast were found to spend 29% more time in EHR systems than clinicians in the Southeast, suggesting that clinicians in the Northeast are at a higher risk for burnout as well. These insights certainly underscore the important role technology can play in improving documentation processes and alleviating clinician burnout.
Drenik: As the industry pushes forward to create a more connected, intuitive experience for patients – what has to change on the provider side?
Sweeney-Platt: Healthcare C-suite leaders need to place a strong focus on including their clinicians in the process of technology adoption. This includes everything from offering proper support and training to monitoring and addressing any technology pain points. Additionally, the technology that healthcare providers invest in needs to promote interoperability and provide actionable data so physicians can more easily garner insights into the whole health of their patient, empowering them to provide the best quality care.
Drenik: Thank you, Jessica, for your insights on technology’s role in solving burnout and improving patient care.