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Unsustainable Workloads Could Lead to Physician Burnout

A recent survey of athenahealth EHR users found nearly half of physicians foresee workloads capable of causing burnout.

athenahealth EHR

Source: Thinkstock

By Kate Monica

- An athenahealth survey found almost half of practicing physicians believe they will have trouble maintaining their workload in the long term, which could potentially lead to physician burnout if left unaddressed by senior leadership.

The survey gauged physician opinions about physician burnout, physician capability, and administrative leadership among athenahealth users in April of 2017.

While physician burnout remains a persisting threat, researchers maintained that practices can deter the likelihood of burnout by fostering feelings of capability among clinicians. athenahealth researchers found evidence physicians that feel capable of delivering high quality care are 76 percent less likely to report plans to leave their organization within three years, and 61 percent less likely to report symptoms of physician burnout.

“When we correlated capability with other survey results, we found that the concept of capability provides valuable guidance for addressing some of the most pressing challenges healthcare leaders face,” wrote athenahealth Vice President of Research Josh Gray. “How can we reduce turnover and the associated costs? How can we improve physician engagement and reduce burnout?”

Physicians that feel capable of delivering high quality care using tools at their practice were often also part of the most successful provider groups using the athenahealth cloud-based EHR.

“In the most financially successful provider groups in the athenahealth network, 60 percent of physicians met the criteria for capability, compared with 43 percent for physicians in the lowest performing groups,” wrote Gray.

The way physician groups are organized can also impact burden. Researchers determined physicians have a more positive experience with care delivery if they work in groups that have a team orientation.

“Doctors in our survey who agreed with the statement ‘our practice values teamwork more than individual performance’ were more than three times more likely to self-assess as capable and five times more engaged — as defined by their willingness to go above and beyond in their jobs and to recommend and stay with their organizations,” stated Gray.

Physicians interested in working in a team-based setting were 75 percent less likely to report feeling symptoms of physician burnout.

“Therefore, anything leaders can do to foster teamwork — establishing stable staffing patterns, ensuring that nurses, physicians, and medical assistants are working to the top of their licenses, and communicating expectations about collaboration — is likely to pay off in higher capability,” advised Gray.

Strong administrative leadership also had an effect on physician capability and the likelihood of burnout.

Almost 80 percent of physicians that assessed themselves as capable agreed their organizational leaders were the best individuals to lead the practice over the next five to 10 years. That number dropped to 20 percent among physicians that reported viewing organizational leadership negatively.

“The proportion of physicians meeting the criteria for high capability doubles as their rating of their leadership increases from four to six on a six-point scale,” noted Gray.

Given these results, athenahealth researchers suggested more practices examine the extent to which their physicians feel capable of delivering the best possible care to patients with the least amount of hassle.

“We believe they would benefit from monitoring self-perceived capability as a key performance metric,” stated Gray. “And we believe they should establish a culture that makes capability a priority and intentionally design a working environment in which capable physicians can thrive.”

Ultimately, researchers determined physician capability, team-based models, and strong organizational leadership could potentially lower the risk of physician burnout caused by EHR use and overburdened providers.

“Our research into capability in healthcare is ongoing,” wrote Gray. “But based on how our findings have resonated so far with physicians and health system leaders, we believe capability is a powerful framework for understanding physicians' work satisfaction and performance.”

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