Burnout plagues workers in virtually every industry, but nowhere is it more common than the healthcare industry. Burnout can be devastating to an otherwise highly capable and productive employee, which, naturally, is a major concern when it comes to the professionals providing healthcare to the public.
There are many reasons burnout is so pronounced among healthcare providers, including administrative demands, long shifts and the general workload. However, modern healthcare IT tools like electronic medical records and practice management software could reduce the pain points associated with burnout. A well-implemented system that suits a practice's workflow can make all the difference, but it's a matter of choosing the right one to set up healthcare providers for success.
What is burnout?
Burnout is more than just a feeling of tiredness or a sense of being overworked. It is now defined as an "occupational phenomenon" by the World Health Organization and is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from work, cynicism toward the job and reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout doesn't happen overnight. It is a long process that often occurs in stages. Sometimes, burnout is a temporary condition brought on by a particularly stressful couple of weeks. Other times, it could become a chronic situation. These are the five stages of burnout:
- The honeymoon phase: When someone first begins a job or new task, they often embrace it with enthusiasm. The honeymoon phase is characterized by a high level of job satisfaction and productivity, as well as optimism and energetic job performance.
- Onset of stress: The onset of stress occurs as the honeymoon phase wanes. It includes an awareness that some days on the job are difficult and is coupled with anxiety surrounding work. It can also include fatigue and the inability to focus. In some cases, it leads to a reduction in job satisfaction and productivity.
- Chronic stress: Chronic stress is a significant increase in the negative aspects seen during the onset of stress. It isn't just that some days produce anxiety, but that most days are difficult. This can lead to anger or cynicism, as well as physical issues outside of work. Procrastination is a key characteristic of chronic stress.
- Burnout: When chronic stress goes unaddressed, burnout sets in. Burnout includes significant behavioral changes and the development of an escapist mentality. It can also increase negative physical symptoms, including headaches and gastrointestinal problems. In severe cases, people suffering from burnout might be inclined to isolate themselves socially.
- Habitual burnout: When burnout is habitual, the people experiencing it are likely to suffer from chronic mental and physical fatigue. Often, habitual burnout prompts a descent into depression. Not only does habitual burnout profoundly impact a person's ability to do their job, but it touches every aspect of their life and well-being.
Burnout is a serious problem and should not be treated as simply feeling tired or overworked. In many cases, people suffering from burnout require the attention of a healthcare professional, as well as a dramatic shift to work they find more meaningful. Unfortunately, some of the people most impacted by burnout are healthcare professionals themselves.
How does burnout impact healthcare providers?
Burnout is a common problem that cuts across industries and job descriptions, especially impacting shift workers or people with multiple jobs. However, one of the most affected groups is healthcare providers. Primary care physicians in particular experience burnout at shocking rates. According to a 2019 study, 79% of primary care physicians experience burnout. Specialists don't have it much better: 57% of specialists report experiencing the effects of burnout as well.
These challenges associated with the healthcare field have led more than a third of active healthcare providers to report they wouldn't recommend the profession to a young family member.
"Physician burnout is becoming an epidemic in the U.S," said Alpha B. Journal, founder and CEO of Journal Solutions. "The most common causes of physician burnout are the nature of the job of having to deal with sick and dying people daily, the healthcare politics such as the decrease in reimbursement, and having to deal with prior authorizations."
Healthcare providers suffering from the effects of burnout report significant challenges at work. Some begin to feel angry with patients, despite knowing that the burnout is not their fault. Others report a feeling of being a cog in a larger machine, rather than a healthcare professional able to take the time to properly diagnose and treat their patients. The common refrain is that healthcare providers want to help people but are buried in administrative work.
How could electronic medical records and practice management software help reduce physician burnout?
Streamlining the daily workload of a medical practice can significantly reduce the feelings of powerlessness and cynicism associated with burnout. Healthcare IT technologies, such as electronic medical records (EMR) and practice management software, can go a long way in optimizing workflows and helping healthcare providers do more with less. While the early adoption of these technologies hasn't always been easy, a system that can be implemented and learned with minimal disruption and suits the practice's workflow can be a game-changer, mitigating the effects of burnout and preventing future challenges.
"EMRs and practice management software support the ability to digitize patient information [and] tie into scheduling, referrals, prescriptions, and many other daily tasks that providers handle," said Bill Ho, CEO of Biscom. "A well-designed system is easy to use, secure, and efficient for better coordination and more timely access to data, particularly at the point of care. Having data at your fingertips, with the ability to search, has helped speed up information access compared to paper charts that might be stored in an archived medical records room. This instant access to information can also result in better diagnoses, facilitate coding and billing, and reduce costs."
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When the benefits of these systems are fully realized, they reduce the administrative burdens associated with burnout. Moreover, many modern EMR and practice management solutions offer healthcare providers new ways to stay engaged with their patients that improve professional efficacy surrounding healthcare and medicine.
"These digital solutions … address current patient demands for more transparency and control over their health information and care," said Ryan VanDePutte, associate director at Bits In Glass. "They allow patients to submit quantitative information like blood pressure, pulse, weight, etc. with their physician, [as well as] capture qualitative information like long-term health plans, life goals and symptom assessment. Patients can also review previously submitted information and raise concerns for their physician to review immediately or during their next appointment."
Engaging with patients regularly through patient portals rather than simply seeing them as another name on the schedule not only saves practices time on registration information and vitals, but can also reestablish the doctor-patient relationship that drove so many physicians to enter the field of medicine in the first place. Decreasing the distance between a healthcare provider and their patient can go a long way in burnout prevention.
Finally, many EMRs make charting much quicker and easier through the use of customizable templates and the seamless integration of data from previous encounters, inside or outside of the practice. When providers are finished seeing a patient, pushing through clinical data to the billing module is often as easy as the click of a button.
What should you look for when choosing healthcare IT products?
An EMR or practice management solution is not a silver bullet. Medical practices shouldn't expect healthcare IT products to solve all their problems. In fact, partnering with the wrong vendor could result in more problems. It's important to take the time to research the market and determine which systems are best for your existing workflow.
When searching for an EMR or practice management solution, look for these features:
- Implementation and training: The implementation of a health IT system is one of the most important parts of the process. In this phase, the system will be configured to your practice, including lab and pharmacy integrations as well as custom clinical note templates. Some vendors include implementation in the cost of the product, while others charge an additional fee. Training for your staff is also often included but is sometimes an additional cost.
- Ease of use: The user-friendliness of a health IT system is essential to ensuring staff can learn and use the system properly without much disruption to daily operations. Many EMR and practice management solutions are sprawling systems that take some time to learn. In addition to offering vendor-provided training, the system you choose should be relatively intuitive.
- Patient registration and scheduling: The practice management software you choose should offer powerful features to streamline patient registration and appointment schedules, as well as insurance eligibility verification functions.
- Charting: Charting is one of the key tools in EMR software. You can often streamline this function with the use of macros, hotkeys and custom templates. Many EMRs also let you use voice dictation for charts, which can further speed up the process and keep providers engaged with patients during the encounter instead of sitting behind a computer screen.
- Integrations: The health IT system you choose should seamlessly integrate with systems that other healthcare providers, hospitals, labs and pharmacies use. Integrations make it easier for data to flow through every point of care in the healthcare ecosystem and cut down on paperwork.
- Patient portal: A good portal allows patients to remain engaged with their healthcare around the clock. This can reduce the patient intake time during an appointment and allows patients to contact their healthcare provider with questions or updates about their conditions.
- ONC-ACB certification: Certifications of health IT systems from the ONC-ACB demonstrate that a system meets government guidelines for meaningful use. These guidelines are important for avoiding Medicare and Medicaid reductions and gaining incentive payments through MIPS and MACRA. A health IT system that is certified under the 2015 edition of ONC-ACB standards is capable for attestation through the programs.
The right EMR and practice management system can make a world of difference for a practice, while choosing the wrong one could lead to additional headaches and pronounced burnout amongst providers. To learn more about how to choose the right healthcare IT products for your practice, see our best picks for electronic medical records.
Leveraging EMR and practice management solutions is only half the battle
Healthcare IT systems are essential for a modern medical practice to realize its full potential. They offer significant benefits to providers and staff that can prevent or reduce burnout. However, implementing these solutions without addressing the root causes, which are sometimes organizational in nature, won't eliminate burnout. To truly combat burnout in a medical practice, it is important to fully account for the major pain points providers experience. Only by addressing these potential organizational problems, in many cases with the help of technological solutions, can a medical practice fight the threat of burnout.