Reducing clinician burnout starts with a fresh look at healthcare technology

April 30, 2019

Technology can serve a higher purpose in healthcare by enabling clinicians to easily communicate and share information without having to taking time away from patient care.

Editor's Note: Welcome to Medical Economics' blog section which features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for bloggers to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The opinions expressed here are that of the authors and not Medical Economics.

When the ECRI Institute named clinician burnout a top patient safety concern for 2019, the group least likely surprised to hear it was clinicians. Still, the report’s language was stark, even for those of us who have been trying to bring more awareness to the growing issue and find ways to improve clinician well-being. 

Burnout in healthcare is now being called a public health crisis-it affects clinicians, their families, patients, organizations, and the health of communities. It also has the potential to negatively impact the future state of healthcare. Burnout leads to more experienced clinicians leaving the field sooner than they might otherwise do, and inherently discourages the next generation from rising (or remaining in the field) to fill that void. 

As a physician and long-time patient advocate for many friends and family members, I continue to examine ways we can mitigate clinician burnout. We need systematic ways to remove unnecessary hassles, eliminate administrative burdens, and reduce levels of stress and cognitive overload for physicians and nurses. We can start by simplifying complex workflows, saving care teams valuable time that can be better spent on providing direct patient care.

There must also be a metric for humanity that evaluates the capacity for caring before, during, and after a new process or technology is implemented. Rather than simply introducing technology with no consideration of its impact on clinicians-as happened with many EHR rollouts-we must establish a way to measure whether a new solution actually improves the lives of clinicians and their ability to provide compassionate, high-quality care. We must define new standards for human-centered innovations and implementation practices to create a connected healing ecosystem of people, processes, and technologies.

Enable clinicians to return to purpose: The real role of technology

In addition to clinician burnout, ECRI Institute's top 10 patient safety concerns for the year include improper management of test results in EHR. While it is a needed repository for clinical, financial, and regularity data, the EHR has created administrative burdens for clinicians, turning physicians and nurses into data entry clerks. It has also become a barrier between clinicians and their patients. It can add fatigue, take clinicians’ focus away from patients at critical moments, and create additional tasks and demands that can ultimately contribute to burnout.

Just as clinicians have a higher purpose in their work, technology can serve a higher purpose in healthcare, enabling clinicians to easily communicate and share information without having to take their hands and attention away from patient care. The right technology can be a valuable tool that fosters human connections at every point of care. Technology should not be an obstacle; and if co-designed with patients and clinicians, it will not be. 

Elevate the voices of clinicians and patients

In medical school and nursing school, clinicians are taught to “tough it out” and not show signs of weakness. Yet, we are all human. We need to acknowledge burnout is a system issue–not an individual one.  While discussions about prevention traditionally focus on interventions and solutions at the individual level, we need to redirect our attention and do the hard work of eliminating preventable trauma of complex and fatiguing systems. 

To accomplish this task, we must elevate the voices of clinicians and engage them and their patients in co-designing the next generation of healthcare technologies. (Had we taken this approach before implementing the EHR, we could have avoided burning out a generation of clinicians.) In the era of voice, we must restore the patient narrative. Voice technology designed to humanize healthcare, connect highly mobile care teams, and return people to purpose is the future of caring.  Voice-controlled platforms can simplify clinical workflows and remove potential hassles for clinicians. With intelligent speech recognition devices, there is no need to look for phone numbers, remember who is on call, or type information that could just as easily (or in many cases, more easily) be spoken aloud. 

Fortunately, I am seeing more organizations understand the benefits of giving clinicians and patients a seat at the table of innovation design. Some healthcare technology companies are encouraging product engineers and IT leaders to walk in the shoes of care teams. By listening to physicians, nurses, and patients, and witnessing the humanity in healthcare, these tech-minded professionals are better equipped to develop human-centered innovations that actually improve the lives of patient, families, and care teams. 

M. Bridget Duffy, MD, is the chief medical officer of Vocera Communications and co-founder of the Experience Innovation Network.