How telehealth can save providers’ sanity and keep them in the profession
These systems showed value during the pandemic and demonstrated that virtual care can serve the needs of physicians who want to improve care.
The impact of the pandemic on healthcare clinicians has been significant, and burnout among providers is reaching an all-time high. As 2022 began, data from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal found that 63 percent of doctors “reported at least one symptom of burnout,” a 44 percent spike from 2017. By contrast, only 30 percent reported feelings of job satisfaction, a 13 percent dip from the same timeframe.
Physician burnout is an increasing concern for the U.S. healthcare system, and it’s one that’s keeping health systems executives up at night. From higher turnover rates to reduced quality of care and worsening health outcomes, burnout can have a profound impact on not just providers, but patients as well.
As more clinicians consider leaving the profession, the healthcare industry is finally starting to embrace the school of thought that telehealth could be a viable solution to address burnout. Here’s how this familiar yet still largely underutilized technology can help.
Mitigates staffing shortages
The industry is in a primary care crisis, with a shortage of nearly 20,000 primary care providers in the U.S. healthcare system. While physicians are doing their best to shoulder the unmet capacity, industry experts have been waving the red flag for decades. The staffing gaps have been further exacerbated by an aging patient population, the increase in chronic care conditions and a shrinking nursing population.
According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, burnout “is a long-term stress reaction marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a lack of sense of personal accomplishment.”
After the challenges clinicians have experienced the last three years, staffing shortages have been even more pronounced today than they were pre-pandemic. New data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that nearly half a million healthcare workers have left the industry since February 2020. Among those clinicians that remain, 31 percent still consider leaving their jobs.
The rapid adoption of telehealth is giving clinicians much-needed flexibility. By enabling them to maximize patient visits without sacrificing care quality, telehealth lets them create a more manageable work schedule. Practicing via telehealth also enables clinicians to work where they’re needed as opposed to a singular geographic area or specific facility, broadening access to patient care in the process and helping to reduce the strain of staffing shortages on the overall industry.
Increasing job satisfaction
The 2021 Telehealth Impact Physician Survey found that telehealth improved job satisfaction among more than half (55 percent) of survey participants.
Being an emergency physician by background, I understand the impact that night shifts have on physician lifespan, quality of life and behavioral health issues related to the delivery of care.
At a time when work-life balance is more important to the workforce than ever, telehealth enables clinicians to practice from the comfort of their own homes, giving them more autonomy over their day-to-day lives and how they choose to practice, in turn driving up job satisfaction.
The industry can further build satisfaction among providers by involving them more in program design and providing administrative help. By increasing clinician satisfaction with the technology, telehealth will continue to flourish.
Improving patient experience
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2018 that said physician burnout can lead to reduced safety in patient care, lower treatment plan adherence and a higher possibility of safety issues.
Another ripple effect includes burnout-induced staffing shortages. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, staffing shortages create less-than-ideal health outcomes for patients, including infections acquired from the hospital or even an increased chance of death.
In a world where clinicians are stressed to the max, telehealth can help alleviate anxiety, whether that’s shortening or removing commutes altogether, coordinating and optimizing schedules and workflows, and helping create more balance between their work and personal lives. When clinicians feel relaxed, they’re more focused on the patient and deliver better care, which ultimately improves overall patient experience. Patient experience with telehealth is just as positive or more compared to in-office visits, according to a National Library of Medicine study on patient experience during the pandemic.
Technology as an enabler
When administered and managed, telehealth can help clinicians address the factors that contribute to burnout, from inefficient use of time to a lack of autonomy to over-prioritizing profitability for their organization.
While standing up a telehealth system can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be. The many benefits of telehealth for both clinicians and patients no longer make it a nice to have; it is a need to have technology for healthcare organizations to serve a wider range of patients, reduce provider burnout and improve the patient experience. As a chief medical officer, I believe it starts with understanding physician culture and the deep interweaving of technology and healthcare.
Telehealth systems should operationalize functional issues and serve the needs of physicians who all have deep motivations to improve patient care and get back to the core job they enjoy, which is communicating with and treating patients. Telehealth can help remove the tasks that have driven both patients and physicians away from that relationship during the last 40 years.
Regardless of how clinicians practice, as more health systems and big technology players make investments into virtual and hybrid care models, healthcare employers have a greater responsibility to help their care teams navigate through feelings of burnout. Whether that’s helping to create a safe workplace environment, offering flexible mental health days, ensuring seamless shift changes, offering access to employee assistance programs or implementing the right kind of telehealth systems on the back end.
Brad Younggren, MD, is chief medical officer and president of Care Innovation at 98point6