By Nirav S. Patel, M.D., Memorial Care.
It’s no longer a question of if or when — physicians are burnt out, plain and simple… and COVID-19 is only partially to blame for the strain. Long before the pandemic through a wrench in staffing, operations, and physical resources, hospitals were trying to do more with less, resulting in an increasing number of critical care physicians, and neurointerventionalists specifically, covering two or three hospitals at once — myself included.
Research shows that physicians who cover more than one hospital on-call have two times higher rates of burnout compared to those who covered a single hospital.
Add in physician shortages, increasing patient volumes, and the added strain of the global pandemic, on top of balancing personal and family schedules, and it is no wonder that we are nearing crisis levels of burnout. Physicians are looking for relief.
This burnout can not only negatively affect physician work-life balance and well-being, but also the quality and safety of care delivered to patients. In fact, some reports state that burnout triples the incidence of medical errors. To make matters worse, a study of neurointerventionalists found that physicians meeting criteria for burnout are 17 percent more likely to face malpractice lawsuits. Along with posing harm to patients, this can also hurt health systems financially and in public trust.
On the financial front, burnout in physicians has the potential to cost hospitals millions of dollars each year due to physician turnover and reduced clinical hours. Losing a full-time physician can cost health systems an average of $990,000 each, prompting the hospital to recruit and replace a physician, which costs between $500,000 and $1 million. The same report estimates that approximately $4.6 billion in costs related to physician turnover and reduced clinical hours is attributable to burnout each year in the United States.
Fortunately, emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and internet of things (IoT), have the potential to offer relief. These technologies are helping physicians manage a higher capacity of case volume, by taking over tedious tasks, streamlining and standardizing processes — ultimately resulting in more consistent, quality care.
As a practicing neurologist, I have personally begun to work more closely with these AI-based neuroimaging solutions, and my workload has become considerably more manageable. Even just the simple ability to receive alerts and access my workload from my phone has drastically improved my remaining work-life balance. Previously, I would have to physically go to the hospital setting or find a computer, which in turn would delay care for the patient. Now I have access to more clinical information and imaging at my fingertips, enabling faster and more data-driven decision making and faster treatment times.
Despite the enormous value of some new digital health tools, transitioning to new technologies within your health organization can still seem like a daunting task to some. Much too often do physicians get stuck in existing habits, making change all the more challenging. To further prevent additional physician burnout as a result of these new technologies and ensuring a seamless transition, I recommend these tips:
Abundant education and training. Before implementing new technologies, physicians must be confident in their ability to operate the tech. Holding thorough training and education courses are absolutely essential before the technology is used on a patient. If physicians do not feel empowered or see the value proposition in using the technology, this can lower morale and further contribute to the physician’s burnout– and even possibly harm the patient.
Create a culture of innovation. Teams will not reap the full power of emerging technologies until every individual is fully committed to utilizing them. Physicians must be ready and willing to learn and not be afraid to push the boundaries of innovation. There must be an environment that offers approachability to ask questions and holds open conversations on ways to improve.
Don’t completely abandon old processes. While new technologies have the potential to transform a physician’s work, it is important to keep certain existing processes in place. The downside of all technology, such as AI, is that in many cases it still lacks a certain context that requires a broader, qualitative way of thinking. Emerging technologies should not replace humans entirely, but rather help them do their jobs. Seamless integrability is key.
The consequences and potential harm of physician burnout are clear. Hospitals must take effective steps to reduce burnout to further prevent physicians’ work experience from worsening, but also prevent the negative consequences for patients. I encourage the healthcare community to open their minds to new ideas and technologies, and see the potential that emerging technologies provide for a better healthcare experience for physicians, patients and the entire healthcare ecosystem.