Burnout: A Fundamental Obstacle to Effective Healthcare
Burnout among medical staff is an enduring stress reaction, characterized not only by emotional challenges but also by symptoms that lead to a negative effect on both patients and the care they receive. Namely, affected practitioners display significant deficits in empathic response. This “depersonalization” is the single most relevant aspect of burnout in hindering effective medical care. Burnout was a grave concern even before the advent of Covid-19. Research compiled through the American Medical Association indicates that the number of medical staff experiencing symptoms has risen since 2020 from about 45% to almost 65% in 2021. Consequences of burnout consist of three major obstacles to effective healthcare:
Suboptimal Patient Care
Medical professionals are only effective when they connect with their patients. Connection in this sense refers to skills like listening and responding with appropriate questions, reviewing history and symptoms to get a comprehensive understanding of the problem at hand and assessing the optimal method of care. Each patient must be seen as an individual with unique needs. When denied this sort of attention, patients sense the difference and satisfaction suffers. Studies show that physicians experiencing depersonalization tend to see interactions with patients as another daunting task rather than as the bedrock of effective medical care. According to the National Institutes of Health, burnout among referring physicians can result in worsening of the condition, subsequent additional symptoms and even unnecessary surgery.
Burnout-related obstacles to effective healthcare can have more serious implications than decreased patient satisfaction. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality determined that between 9 and 10 percent of deaths in the United States can be attributed to medical error. Though many of these deaths may be the result of systemic issues and poor protocols, burnout is a factor that should not be ignored. Medical staff experiencing full-blown burnout are twice as likely to make mistakes.
The combination of dissatisfied patients and medical error of course leads to allegations of malpractice. The NIH has discovered that burnout is directly correlated to malpractice claims. In fact, the odds of being named in a suit increase by a whopping 17% when burnout is a factor. These avoidable cases overload the budget, increasing costs of insurance and requiring expensive, sometimes extended, litigation. These costs can become prohibitive for medical professionals working as independent contractors or those hoping to open smaller practices.
Medical professionals can combat burnout by becoming more self-aware and addressing symptoms directly. Work/life balance is essential, as are efforts to connect with other medical workers, developing personal support systems and finding ways to increase meaning and purpose in their work. Organizations can address burnout by creating a more positive work environment, streamlining schedules and reducing administrative responsibilities. The simplest way to effect those changes may be to add a locum tenens practitioner on an as-needed basis to combat overload and assist with the most challenging cases. The use of medical recruitment companies and healthcare staffing agencies, well-versed in signs and symptoms of burnout, may be a good choice as a preventative measure when hiring medical staff.