Workplace stress is a serious issue for many Americans. According to the Mayo Clinic, possible causes of job burnout include lack of control, unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, extremes of activity, lack of social support and work-life balance.

Companies that lack a system to support their employees' wellbeing experience lower productivity and higher turnover and health care costs. A Stanford study found that workplace stress leads to approximately $190 million in health care spending and nearly 120,000 deaths annually.

The day of a doctor

Perhaps the industry most affected by burnout is health care. Doctors in the United States report burnout at rates twice as high as non-physician working adults, and an estimated 300-400 physicians each year commit suicide.

There are many ways physicians can employ their skills in an average 40-60 hour work week, such as examining, diagnosing and treating patients in a clinical setting, conducting research and analyzing lab results of diagnostic tests, offering preventive health care in a public health organization, among many others.

Physicians do not solely focus on patient care in a clinical setting, however. Doctors and other clinicians perform administrative work correlated with government and industry rules and regulations, including Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requirements and incentive programs like the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS).

Doctors spend 2.6 hours weekly complying with external quality measures, which in an outpatient setting would be enough time to see approximately nine additional patients. Almost half a physician’s workday is occupied by administrative tasks; a mere 27% is spent on direct clinical care.

Another responsibility that physicians must fulfill is handling payer issues. A lot of health insurance companies require detailed, accurate documentation for full and timely reimbursement. One study reported that approximately 50% of clinicians and health care executives want the emphasis of organizational interventions designed to decrease physician burnout to focus on documentation requirements from payers.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), physician burnout can threaten patient safety and care quality. AHRQ states that depersonalization leads to poor interactions with patients, as burned-out physicians suffer from impaired attention, memory and executive function. Overstress in doctors has been linked to problems like decreased patient satisfaction and care quality, physician alcohol and drug abuse and addiction, high medical error rates, malpractice risk and staff turnover.

Suggested solutions

Although some tools add another layer of responsibility for physicians, technological solutions designed to fit their workflow can positively affect their job satisfaction. A study co-written by one of the American Medical Association’s (AMA) leaders on professional satisfaction found that doctors who were satisfied with information technology applications were four times more likely to be happy with their medical practice.

Technologies that promote patient engagement benefit physicians through reduced costs, increased communication and streamlined population health, helping lower the burden on providers by putting documentation in patients’ hands. Contrastingly, high volumes of data entry and poor usability associated with electronic health records (EHR) technology are a main cause of physician burnout.

A report from the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) on optimizing health care technology to improve patient engagement offered some solutions. These included patient portals, automated appointment reminder systems, check-in technologies, telehealth, digital payment options and data analytics. MGMA also provided physician practices the following DOs and DON’Ts for implementing new technology:

  1. DO prioritize change management: Explain the necessity to cross-train for each technology, ensuring staff is comfortable talking to and training patients.
  2. DO build time for pre-tech user engagement: Allow input and create open-ended meetings to share issues – with and without supervisors – to encourage staff to provide honest feedback.
  3. DO walk before you run: While deciding which technologies to implement, identify your top three needs and leave room to fail and switch tactics. Superusers must gain mastery of first-gen functions in any solution before expanding it.
  4. DON’T worry about starting small: You can grow with most technologies.
  5. DON’T downplay the cost of implementation: Get substantial numbers and then add one-third more.

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Using health care technology to reduce physician burnout