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The Burnout Spectrum: What happens when patients feel it too

When a medical catastrophe hits, we turn to professionals for help. Amidst the panic and cortisol surge, doctors, nurses, and therapists are here to treat us, cure us, and soothe us. But what happens when your medical professional is experiencing their own brand of stress? Healthcare is a unique line of work that balances science, empathy, and impossible hours all rolled into one. The universality of the condition is underscored by data that indicates burnout rates are as high as 50 percent for physicians. While the causes are all-too-familiar, new technologies and workplace efficiencies point to a hopeful future.

It’s more than just an occupational hazard

Burnout is more than just an occupational hazard. Burnout is dangerous because of how deeply it permeates the human experience. Physical ramifications include cardiovascular distress, but for physicians, the burnout is so severe that one physician each day in the United States commits suicide. That’s twice the rate than in the general population. And when you look at the under-diagnosed rates of depression within the medical community, as well as the mental, social, and professional implications of burnout, the impact starts to paint a devastating picture.

Depression and emotional exhaustion, often paired with excessive use of alcohol is common, as is escalating problems within personal relationships. Professionally, care providers begin to lose their ability to meaningfully connect with patients. Burnout also leads to a decline in feelings of personal accomplishment and further professional disengagement. It’s not good. And it gets worse… Burnout amongst care providers has a direct link to patient safety. Burnout doubles the likelihood of receiving unsafe care. 

The correlation is strongest between physician burnout and patient satisfaction. When physicians are burnt out, they aren’t able to meaningfully connect with their patients, a phenom the research has coined Depersonalization. Patients do notice and they don’t like it. Burnt out doctors who fail to connect with their patients see a 3x higher rate in poor professionalism ratings. Physicians who are burnt out will make mistakes, they will miss things. At best, a test may have to be re-performed. And at worst, it could cost a patient their life. 

Catching the early signs of burnout

The good news and the bad news is that medical errors are preventable. Meaning, we can do something about it. System-wide efficiencies promise to not only lighten the load, but also to catch signs of burnout early on. 

EMRs and the quantification of self – both inside and outside hospital walls – produce an inordinate amount of data — data that providers must make sense of and meticulously document. Even with the help of machine learning and the like, the burden is heavy. More technological innovation is not necessarily the solution. Rather, we need better technological innovation. Within a saturated market, the recent consolidation trends are helpful, as disparate entities begin to play together within larger, but fewer, systems. This increases standardization – the silver bullet of data efficiency.

The amount of data per patient is one thing, but physicians are also faced with seeing more patients per day than ever before. In a classic supply-and-demand conundrum, the US is looking at a gap of 122,000 physicians by 2032. Tech disruptors have proven invaluable, but for the sake of the patient and the provider, the personalization and humanization of healthcare must be preserved. Within organizations, a culture of wellness is being advocated for, in which fellow staff and care team members look out for and support self care interests with each other. 

The national dialogue around burnout and mental health is also changing. Once shunned away into the darkness amongst polite society, it is millennials, who have been coined the “therapy generation” due to their open discussion of mental health experiences. Groups like the Don’t Give Up movement are spreading hope through simple, yet impactful yard signs. And finally, films like Do No Harm have been made to bring attention to the growing problem. It is a documentary worth watching. 

The science is here and the data is clear. Burnout is wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem of care from the individuals it impacts directly right down to the brass tacks of patient safety. Physicians are often both the emotional support and the medical hero we seek, so let’s take better care of them. 

Author

Grace Moen

Content Contributor

Grace thrives in the pursuit of knowledge. She is a writer and researcher on the topics of design, architecture, and the digital health landscape. You will likely find her ghostwriting for TEDx talks, crafting web copy, or editorializing on how technology and investment can facilitate health equity locally and globally.

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