Healthcare staffing shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified an already serious problem in healthcare: clinician burnout.
Healthcare staffing shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified an already serious problem in healthcare: clinician burnout. An American Medical Association (AMA) national survey of nearly 21,000 healthcare professionals shows nearly half (49%) reported at least one symptom of burnout, while 43% said they suffered from work overload.
The costs of clinician burnout are steep. A 2019 study estimated that physician burnout costs the U.S. healthcare industry $4.6 billion annually, mostly through clinician turnover and a reduction of clinical hours.
Subsequently, there are the personal and professional costs. Clinicians with burnout may exhibit multiple symptoms, including low energy, exhaustion, compassion fatigue, insomnia, irritability, alcohol and drug abuse, and a lack of purpose in their jobs. Clinician burnout also can impact quality of care because physicians under physical and emotional duress are more prone to making mistakes, leading to poorer outcomes, and increasing the risk of malpractice exposure.
The time crunch resulting from high patient demand for services and a severe shortage of clinical professionals is also of concern, neither of which shows signs of abating soon. A 2017 study found that the average patient visit with a primary care clinician ran just over 15 minutes and often covered up to a half-dozen health issues. Worse, clinicians typically spend large chunks of that valuable patient time trying to find or enter data on a digital screen.
Fast forward to today and clinicians are trying to implement new models of digital care delivery during a once-in-a-century pandemic. Clinicians and care managers are overburdened with data, alert fatigue, and Best Practice Advisories (BPAs) that, in an effort to streamline care management, only make it more difficult. Too often they lack the basic clinical supplies and resources necessary to safely do their jobs. Additionally, the trauma of working in healthcare through the fear of COVID-19 leaves no wonder why nurses are leaving their careers and years of training at alarming rates in response to mentally and physically draining shifts and unsafe patient loads.
To add disruption on top of disorder, other clinicians are quitting their jobs in opposition to vaccine mandates by their states or employers. From the physician’s office to ambulatory care to the intensive care unit (ICU) and beyond, healthcare organizations are struggling with chronic staffing shortages that limit how many patients can be seen and the quality of care that can be delivered. Ironically, staffing shortages can lead to increased spending because a hospital or health system might hire nurses on a contract basis at a higher rate than they would pay a full-time nurse.
On the patient side, staffing shortages will inevitably impact not only the quality of care they receive, but whether they receive care at all. This is particularly so for patients with debilitating but not fatal conditions such as deteriorating joints or other conditions requiring elective procedures. Care will always be provided for the most urgent cases, such as patients in an ICU, but a middle-aged woman who needs a knee replacement or a man who is waiting for hernia surgery may not be able to schedule their procedures because clinicians are being redeployed to higher-priority patients. These are both medical and quality-of-life issues, the latter yet another cost of clinician burnout and staffing shortages.
There is no magic bullet for reducing clinician burnout; rather, targeted solutions can be applied to each of the major causes. On the most basic level, giving clinicians the supplies and resources they need to effectively (and safely) provide care helps them to better manage the stress of their jobs. Healthcare organizations should communicate with clinicians to determine where there are supply and resource shortages and take steps to eliminate them. A review of the supply chain and inventory supply could also result in opportunities for cost savings.
Reasonable patient loads would also go a long way toward easing clinician burnout. However, given the demand for care, shortage of clinical staff, and ongoing impact of the pandemic, clinicians aren’t likely to see relief in the form of full staffing levels any time soon.
Fortunately, the right technology can address this major cause of burnout by making it far easier for clinicians to access the right patient data before and during an encounter, during which every minute is valuable. A technology platform that streamlines and organizes data for clinicians at the point of care also helps provider organizations offset the burden of staff shortages because it dramatically increases efficiency.
Additionally, a platform with analytics capabilities supports care coordination and ensures clinicians can track the most at-risk patients and provide outreach support if necessary. This type of preventive approach can help healthcare organizations avoid unnecessary costs and improve patient outcomes. Analytics-based prevention is especially valuable in cases where patients may be medication-noncompliant. Identifying and proactively reaching out to those patients can help counter possible adverse health events and prevent future unnecessary costs.
A fully integrated care management platform can enable care managers to coordinate care and easily access relevant, actionable, and organized patient data when it’s needed, promoting fast, evidence-based action at the point of care. While technology alone can’t solve clinician burnout, it can provide the means for organizations to provide better care while increasing efficiency and alleviating stress. A comprehensive approach employing technology solutions, better resource allocation, and direct feedback from clinicians will be key to easing burnout across the industry.
Jessica Scruton, BSN, RN, CCM is the director of Clinical Transformation at Lightbeam Health.