Guest Column | January 11, 2021

COVID-19 And Physician Burnout: What Hospitals Can Do To Help

By Dr. Al Wilson, Medical Director and Ronnie Sutton, Senior Consultant, iPro Healthcare

woman wearing mask covid

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified physician stress and burnout. Healthcare teams have had to adapt quickly to overcome new challenges and limitations to care delivery, often while operating with reduced financial and human resources. As providers grapple with patient surge and exposure mitigation, support of our physicians has never been more paramount.

COVID-19 Effects on Physicians

survey conducted by Primary Care Collaborative and the Larry A. Green Center in June of 2020 examined the effects of COVID-19-related stress and burnout on primary care physicians in 49 states. The survey found that at the height of the pandemic, over 80% of physicians were experiencing heightened levels of burnout. Nearly half of respondents stated that both their personal and office burnout was at an all-time high (44 and 48 percent, respectively).

Physicians are also worried about their patients not getting the care they need. 78% of respondents reported that a majority of their patients have multiple chronic conditions. Despite offering care visits, 48% of respondents said their patients weren’t scheduling them at the time. A decline in visits further increased physicians’ stress. 39% reported having to reduce their staff, while a quarter skipped or deferred their own salaries. To make matters worse, 20% of respondents didn’t have access to any known support resources.

How Hospitals Can Help Alleviate Physician Stress and Burnout

Although the Primary Care Collaborative/Larry A. Green Center survey focused on primary care physicians, those working within hospitals are likely to be just as stressed, if not more so. Fortunately, there are measures hospitals can take to alleviate pandemic-related stress and burnout in physicians and other staff.

A recent American Medical Association article lists seven ways to address physicians’ pandemic-related stress and burnout:

  1. Create a peer support program to encourage coping through shared experience.
  2. Implement team-based care to rebalance and redistribute workloads.
  3. Maintain a list of resources for well-being such as childcare, transportation, mental health, and more.
  4. Ensure leaders receive adequate training – strong leadership is one of the keys to thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  5. Encourage virtual feedback sessions, or resilience rounds, to give physicians an opportunity to share how they’re feeling and to address any pressing needs.
  6. Hold virtual town halls for discussions to inform staff of important news and updates
  7. Provide support initiatives to ease fears, such as hotel accommodations for staff who are worried about exposing their family to COVID-19.

Other Tools to Reduce Physician Stress and Burnout

In addition to the seven steps outlined by the AMA, there are other measures hospitals can take to reduce pandemic-related stress and burnout. Hospitals can simplify patient throughput and improve provider experience by supporting their physician network with shared resources.

The technology physicians use on a daily basis is a significant contributor to burnout. A 2019 survey conducted by Spok found that 90% of clinicians believed “increased and ineffective technology contributes to risk of clinician burnout.” 

While technology can worsen burnout when it’s ineffective or poorly implemented, it can also reduce stress and burnout when done correctly. There are a variety of solutions that help combat burnout, but the best ones address the number one problem: workflows. 

Technology should always make physicians’ jobs easier. Types of technology that can help streamline or reduce workflows include:

  • Artificial Intelligence – AI software can save time by providing predictive analytics and real-time patient insights.
  • Order management – Ambulatory order management solutions with an integrated quality decision support mechanism (qCDSM) reduces workflows by eliminating faxes, generating an electronic order with pertinent information intact, and reducing errors that result in rescheduled appointments and delayed reimbursements.
  • Telehealth – Telehealth provides physicians with a way to safely interact with patients, ensuring isolated patients receive the care they need, and physicians avoid the risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
  • Voice Transcription - Transcription solutions save time by eliminating the need for physicians to manually enter notes and giving patients more face-time.

Partnering with the right IT vendors can also help reduce physician stress and burnout. In healthcare, technology issues can be a matter of life and death. Ideally, vendor solutions will be user-friendly enough that end-users can troubleshoot most issues themselves. In more complex situations though, it’s important to have a vendor who can provide support 24/7 to resolve critical issues as quickly as possible. Look for vendors that offer multiple contact methods, such as live chat, email, phone, and support tickets via the customer portal.

Working Together to Reduce Physician Stress and Burnout

Physician stress and burnout is bad enough in the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made it worse. While physician burnout is a growing problem that has serious consequences for patients, physicians, and providers, there are ways to curb it. Following the AMA’s 7 steps to addressing pandemic-related stress outlined above and implementing effective technologies that reduce workloads are two ways hospitals help address the problem.

About the Authors

Dr. Al Wilson brings decades of clinical experience to his role as Medical Director for iPro Healthcare. Ronnie Sutton brings 28 years of experience in healthcare technology to his role as the lead software architect for ambulatory order management solutions that qualify orders for medical necessity and act as a communication conduit throughout the ordering process.