Hire a 'Burnout' Officer to Help Physicians: Report

Megan Brooks

January 18, 2019

To combat the crisis of physician burnout, every major healthcare organization in the United States should appoint an executive-level wellness officer, a new report advises.

The main job of the chief wellness officer (CWO) is to study and assess physician burnout at their institution and consult with physicians to design, implement, and continually improve interventions to reduce burnout, according to the report.

We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.    Alain Chaoui, MD

"The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician wellbeing is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients," coauthor Alain Chaoui, MD, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a news release.

"We need our healthcare institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us," said Chaoui.

The report, A Crisis in Health Care: A Call to Action on Physician Burnout, is the result of a collaborative effort by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Global Health Institute, Massachusetts Medical Society, and Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association.

The prevalence of physician burnout has reached "critical levels," the report notes, with recent evidence suggesting that nearly half of all physicians are suffering burnout in some form. Burnout can manifest in a range of ways and typically involves emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians who suffer from burnout are more likely than their peers to cut back on their work hours or stop practicing medicine.

A Matter of Urgency

In addition to advocating for all healthcare organizations to have a CWO, the report calls on institutions to "immediately" improve access to and expand health services for physicians, including mental health services, and encourage physicians to use these services to prevent or manage symptoms of burnout. 

"Physicians face stigma and professional obstacles to seeking appropriate care and treatment for burnout and related mental health concerns. Physician institutions — including physician associations, hospitals, and licensing bodies — should take deliberate steps to facilitate appropriate treatment and support without stigma or unnecessary constraints on physicians' ability to practice," the report advises.

Addressing the burnout crisis will also require significant changes to the usability of electronic health records, the report concludes.

"The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don't directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout," coauthor Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in the release.

"There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the frontlines — our physicians — are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients," said Jha.

These three recommendations should all be implemented "as a matter of urgency and will yield benefits in the short, medium, and long term," the authors write in their report.

"This report and its recommendations offer an important advance toward ensuring that physicians are able to bring their best selves to their lifesaving work," coauthor Steven Defossez, MD, vice president for clinical integration for the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, added in the release. "We see it as a component of our broader efforts to improve the healthcare workplace for every single employee, from nurses and direct care workers to lab technicians and administrative personnel.”

The full report is available online.

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