Even before the pandemic, physician burnout cost the United States $4.6 billion per year. That number today is likely much higher when one considers the emotional and physical toll of the pandemic combined with the nationwide healthcare labor shortages.
It’s not just physicians who are affected, either. Nurses, medical assistants, technicians and other hospital staff also are leaving in droves. Each resignation adds to the workload of those who remain, making it even more difficult for healthcare workers to focus on the part of the profession they were first drawn to: helping patients. More work, less enjoyment, more departures—and the vicious cycle spirals onward.
Burnout expert Dr. Dike Drummond compares burnout to an energy bank account. Burnout occurs when you continually withdraw energy from your account for work and activities without replenishing the account through rest and rebalance. Dr. Drummond states that ultimately there are only two ways to prevent burnout: “You either lower the drain of the stresses in your work life and your larger life or you increase your ability to recharge.”
Burnout is often countered through policy measures (e.g. work hour restrictions) or behavior change (e.g. yoga and meditation). However, one of the most powerful antidotes to burnout may actually be technology. There are at least three ways that technology can reduce the stresses of healthcare work and increase the ability of staff to recharge.
Offload additional work to digital assistants
Headcount planning and staffing is a massive challenge for any healthcare system. Staffing must be planned months in advance, with an eye toward fluctuations in patient demand and competitive pressures. When it comes to hiring, health systems now face a drastically limited supply of workers and sharply rising wage expectations. Unfortunately, neither of these trends seems to be going away in the near future. Recent studies show that even more workers will be leaving the healthcare profession in the coming years, and rising wages across other industries will continue to put pressure on healthcare employers.
Thankfully, much of the manual work done in healthcare today does not need to be done by humans and instead can safely be performed by software robots (bots), also known as digital assistants.
Of the hundreds of manual processes performed in healthcare each day, ranging from prior authorization submission to care gap identification, roughly 60% to 70% of them can be offloaded to intelligent digital assistants in my estimation. When infused with artificial intelligence capabilities like optical character recognition and natural language processing, these software robots can handle high degrees of complexity and large volumes of data, making them apt for performing advanced tasks like reviewing a patient’s chart to identify open care gaps or following up on claims and prior authorizations.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of digital assistants is that they’re elastically scalable, meaning you can scale up your workforce in times of increased demand (e.g. Omicron wave) and scale down when patient volume decreases. Digital assistants are already automating millions of manual repetitive tasks in other industries, and it is not long before the same will be true in healthcare.
Improve alignment between clinical work and clinical training
There is significant misalignment in healthcare between what clinicians spend their time doing and what they’re trained to do. Research shows that roughly 50% of physician time at work is spent in the EHR while only 27% is spent directly with patients. Yet in medical school physicians spend almost no time learning how to be more efficient in using an EHR and almost all their time learning how to diagnose and counsel patients. Thousands of medical students graduate each year hoping to practice their newly learned bedside skills, but are instead subjected to several hours per day in front of an EMR which they are ill-equipped to use. This dissonance between the content of clinical training and the realities of the job can be profoundly draining.
Offloading menial tasks to digital assistants isn’t just about a reduction in workload; it allows physicians to refocus their time on what they entered the profession to do—treating patients. By spending more time on enjoyable patient interactions and less time on administrative tasks, clinicians can refuel, recharge and regain their sense of purpose. Intelligent automation offers one way for organizations to begin this shift.
Improve your ability to improve your patients’ health
Taking care of patients can often feel like a Sisyphean task of pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it come crashing back down—chronic diseases continue to progress and many of the same patients continue to deteriorate despite your best efforts. This can be extremely discouraging for clinicians, many of whom have always been able to work their way out of a difficult situation, whether that be admission to medical school or a challenging exam. But when it comes to patients, more effort doesn’t always lead to better results. There is too much outside of the control of the individual practitioner—will the patient show up, will they take their medicines, will they follow up with the specialist you referred them to? Imagine having 10,000 tasks on your to-do list every day and having little influence on any of them.
With modern technology, individual clinicians don’t need to bear this burden alone. Imagine having a fleet of virtual medical assistants who can reach out to every one of your patients when they’re due for care, when they stop refilling their meds, or when they need to schedule a referral. Automation makes much of this a reality. Clinicians can multiply their ability to care for patients by leveraging software to perform the repetitive, high-volume and error-prone tasks that otherwise occupy the day.
Burnout is prevalent across healthcare and likely going to worsen. Although policy measures and behavior change can be effective methods of mitigating burnout, health systems must also utilize technology as it can be incredibly effective in reducing workload, recharging clinicians and increasing capacity.
Photo: PeopleImages, Getty Images