What healthcare CEOs can do to help doctors do the job they were trained for

The indisputable fact is that physician burnout is prevalent and growing. A brief conversation with one’s private physician or a discussion at a gathering of friends confirms an extraordinary level of dissatisfaction among the medical profession.

This year, Medscape’s annual Physician Lifestyle Report surveyed more than 15,000 physicians from 29 specialties about burnout, characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment (Balch 2018).  Among physician respondents, 42 percent reported burnout, the highest rates occurring in neurologists, family physicians, ob/gyns, internists, emergency medicine physicians and radiologists. More than half of the physicians who reported burnout chose an excess of bureaucratic tasks as the contributing factor, and more than one-third noted too many hours at work.

The implications are sobering as professionals with unprecedented passion, decades of educational preparation, and significant professional experience is exhausted, dissatisfied and frustrated.

As a hospital president for over 20 years, I experienced unsettling physician dissatisfaction and burnout. Plummeting reimbursement, conflicting priorities, and new technology are all elements necessary to cause emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of one’s profession and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.

In addressing this issue, the greatest advice came from a prominent orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Carl Highgenboten, when he requested, “Let me be a physician.” Trained at some of the most prestigious academic centers and with decades of experience, he was overwhelmed with the “business” side of practicing medicine. We are inundating these incredible men and women with obligations and responsibilities that are distracting, frustrating and unnecessary.

The health care industry is massive: $3 trillion in spending and creating 20 percent of the gross domestic product. It has become a multi-billion dollar sector of the economy. Some warn, “Beware the medical industrial complex.”

Regrettably, we are dragging brilliantly trained clinicians into the accounting, billing and coding offices where they are being forced to engage in efforts unrelated to their core passion and responsibility. Not only do we force them to struggle with clunky electronic health records, but we also obligate them to act as billing agents and invoice adjudicators. Further, collapsing reimbursements forces many to pursue fiscal strategies to keep their doors open.

Every year I teach a seminar for aspiring hospital CEOs at the national meeting of the American College of Healthcare Executives. My theme? Let doctors be doctors.

Today’s healthcare leaders must assume greater responsibility in making the health care delivery system seamless and flawless. By introducing smart and effective tools that address inefficiencies in the care delivery model, we will allow physicians to be physicians.

Infusing smart and effective business processes and systems that have proven successful in other industries will not only improve quality, reduce cost and improve accessibility, but physicians will be allowed to return to what they do best — taking care of patients.

Why can’t we use the same predictive analytics in scheduling that we experience at a restaurant and apply them to a physician’s office? Who is stopping us from consolidating a medical bill and making sure that it is understandable? Can’t we use artificial intelligence and mobile devices to effectively manage chronic disease?

As healthcare leaders assume greater responsibility in integrating smart business processes and systems into the delivery of care, physicians will be freed to do that for which they were trained. They will be given more moments to invest in that which they feel passion. Their time will not be spent wrestling with a computer and more time-fighting illness.

So in contemplating the alarming level of physician burnout, let’s let physicians be physicians.

Article posted with permission of Britt Berrett, Ph.D., MEDI Leadership executive coach. Britt Berrett is director of the Center for Healthcare Leadership and Management in the Naveen Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas. 

*Original article is posted on the Dallas News