How to Implement Physician Burnout Solutions as a Healthcare Leader

Physicians continue to face increasingly high stress and emotional exhaustion with a continued feeling of no solution in sight, which has affected physician attitudes, performance, and overall behaviors. These negative effects often lead to compromised healthcare in areas such as clinical performance, satisfaction, and clinical outcomes. Even as of March 2021, a recent study concluded that provider burnout and disengagement resulting in physician shortages could be the most disruptive facing healthcare organizations in the next three years. [1] The effects of COVID-19 have only exacerbated burnout symptoms, prompting the need for physician burnout solutions.

Acknowledge the Problem

There have been years of studies on the persistent, worsening epidemic of burnout. Some part of the solution lies in physician actions — but the major part lies on the shoulders of their healthcare leadership. To make matters worse, some leaders believe that burnout is not a “problem” that can be “solved,” rather “only a dilemma.” [2] 

This continued misconception that nothing meaningful can be done to reduce burnout and promote engagement is a serious issue. Healthcare leaders need to understand the business case to not only reduce burnout but also to promote engagement are key steps for the healthcare systems to take action. [3] 

Idealistically, a healthcare leader’s role encompasses all angles of delivering effective care while protecting the safety of patients, employees, and visitors. The majority of delivering effective care relies on the physician and the quality he/she gives. Organizations need to recognize the severity of the burnout issue and take proactive steps to find physician burnout solutions.

What Causes Burnout and How Can I Solve It?

Burnout is caused by a combination of factors due to the complexities of today’s healthcare environment, and there is no simple solution. Hospitals and organizations need to look at the combination of factors and have open communication with physicians on their thoughts to improve their work life. This ultimately means investing in the physician’s future, which in turn means investing in the future of the organization. 

Below are just a number of proactive physician burnout solutions that healthcare leaders can begin to implement in their organizations. 

#1: Organizational Culture and Work Environment

Small investments can have a large impact. To flourish, physicians need some degree of choice (control over their lives), camaraderie (social connectedness), and an opportunity for excellence (being part of something meaningful). Organizations can provide these opportunities by establishing constructive organization-physician relationships and developing physician leaders. [4] 

The first step for improvement is to assess the problem specific to the organization and measure the physician’s well-being on a routine basis based on a variety of different components from burnout, engagement, emotional health and work/life balance. There are a number of tools such as the General Health Questionnaire and the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to help healthcare leaders in accessing burnout in their providers. [5] [6]

In 2015, a study on organizational leadership showed that the leadership qualities of physician supervisors impact the overall well-being and satisfaction of individual physicians working in healthcare organizations. [7] It is vital for executives to focus on the selection and continued leadership skill development for physician leaders and managers leading physicians at a given organization.  

It is important to assess for the higher risk specialties and/or work units and identify the local factors within them that are causing the increased symptoms of burnout 

Adding or improving a recognition program for healthcare professionals can help to bring engagement back to the affected individual(s).  

#2: Wellness Program

Implementing and/or improving the current wellness program focused on each healthcare professional job is essential for continued improvement:

  • Create a crisis hotline for immediate support.
  • Create partnerships with local community groups such as gyms, support groups, spa centers to offer services at a discounted rate.
  • Offer online and in-person stress management, burnout prevention, emotional development, conflict management and cultural competency ongoing programs to foster and enhance proficiency within the organization.
  • Set up work units or specialty-specific dinners, mixers or activities outside of work to allow for the fostering of work relationships. As providers get to know one another, trust and support for each other can grow. 
  • Encourage physicians to “speak up” about the key stressors they face on a day-to-day basis and forward physicians a way to do so. You may initiate a “town hall” type of session and/or send out anonymous surveys to fill out monthly or quarterly to gauge the improvement of the organization’s initiatives.

#3: Create Resources to Humanize Healthcare

Focus on specific factors that cause burnout:

Administrative burden

EHR’s were designed to maximize coding, billing and revenue, not to support the physician in productivity. Focus on researching support services that can help to alleviate the burden to the highest degree. For example, medical scribes, through continued proof of concept pilots, now prove to be essential in “freeing” the physician’s time in their clinical work day and improve their work life balance. Providers are able to focus on a number of different aspects of their work from improved quality care to increase patient load and overall patient and physician satisfaction. 

Regulatory issues

Healthcare leaders also need to work with state legislators on big healthcare-related regulatory issues and work with the insurers on more appropriate reimbursements. 

Please note that this list will continue to grow as more obstacles come about due to continued roadblocks and increasing technologies. Initiatives by the individual physicians are necessary but organizations who have played a major role in causing, mitigating, and preventing physician burnout must make an institutional commitment in implementing physician burnout solutions based on all the factors that caused the symptoms in the first place.

Written by: Nicole Bramblett, MHA