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Restoring Empathy and Joy to Medical Practice


For those members of the medical profession who worry about the advance and impact of physician burnout nationwide, it might help to know that you have a real champion in your corner—Bridget Duffy, MD.

Lifestyle, Columns, Practice Management, Medicine, Healthcare, Bridget Duffy, Burnout

“Quality is not an act, it’s a habit.”


For those members of the medical profession who worry about the advance and impact of physician burnout nationwide, it might help to know that you have a real champion in your corner—Bridget Duffy, MD.

Duffy is the chief medical officer for Vocera, a publicly-traded, healthcare communications company that “empowers teams through intelligent, real-time communication solutions in healthcare and other mission-critical mobile environments.” A San Francisco area resident, Duffy attended medical school at the University of Minnesota and is board-certified in internal medicine.

I got to speak with the good doctor recently and she offered up some hope and direction on the matter. “The single most important thing that we need to focus on in healthcare today is the impact of physician burnout in America,” said Duffy, who serves on several national task forces to address the matter. “And I think it is at a crisis level.”

But despite the real and serious problem of unhappiness among doctors, Duffy believes the medical profession can and must endure. “It’s amazing to me the number of doctors who come up to me and tell me they want to quit,” she said. “They tell me of their frustration and unhappiness with the profession—often with tears in their eyes. But I still have great hope for doctors—I think this is the greatest profession ever. We are so privileged.”

Duffy explained that “the number one cause for the doctor burnout epidemic is electronic medical records (EMRs). And while it’s hard to say we don’t need EMRs, they along with other technologies, on top of bureaucracy and administration, have created a tipping point by taking the doctors and nurses away from the bedside.”

Too much technology, she said, “has also created a fractured relationship between doctors and nurses—a vital healthcare link—leading to poor communication between these professionals. And we’ve depersonalized the experience between doctors and patients. We dumped the EMRs system onto a group that was not ready for it.”

The solution, she says, is more compassion, competence and caring in healthcare. “It’s so important to make a personal connection with the patient,” Duffy explained. “Today we might offer them a great technological experiences, but we ignore them as people. The medical profession has slipped away from finding that sheer joy of being challenged and helping as a physician.”

“Most doctors will say they entered medicine because of the richness of the sacred relationship between doctor and patient,” she continued. “When that’s striped away then we just see the illness in the exam room, not a person.”

Duffy offered some guidance on how to restore the splendor to medicine:

• “Find technologies that put doctors and nurses back at the bedside and advance those technologies that restore the voice for how doctors and nurses once communicated about healthcare and how we hear the patient’s story.”

• “Stop doctors from being data-entry clerks. There are plenty of studies that show the ROI for using physical scribes in the room, a remote scribe, or maybe a system that allows the doctor to speak and his/her notes are transcribed into a record.”

• “Address the culture and leadership in today’s medicine. It’s vital that we focus on the issue of overall doctor well-being, so they don’t check their hearts and minds at the door when they walk across the threshold of the clinic.”

• “Physicians must stop abdicating our leadership roles. We can’t count on “they” to help us. We must step up and lead the movement. There has to be more physicians in key leadership positions of authority and accountability around the country.”

• “There’s plenty of data on what we can do to improve things. We must develop better partnerships with business leaders and healthcare administrators. It’s the doctors themselves who must come up with the next generation of best practices.”

• “Take the things off the doctor’s plate that can be better done elsewhere while at the same time adding things to their plate they they’re best equipped to do.”

The daughter of a dentist (periodontist), Duffy thanks her father for “dragging her” to events and providing guidance on how to run better and more efficient organizations. Her father “use to keep a little pad with him and would record the wisdom of things he learned from his patients.” The best piece of advice he ever gave her was to “never operate on a stranger, get to know your patient as a human being. With today’s technology we don’t get the full patient history, we seldom touch the patient. Now we just order an MRI of CAT scan.”

Prior to her appointment as CMO at Vocera, Duffy co-founded and served as chief executive officer of ExperiaHealth, a company with the mission to assist organizations in rapidly improving staff and patient loyalty through innovative technologies and solutions that restore the human connection in healthcare. ExperiaHealth was acquired by Vocera and now drives the company’s research collaborative as the Experience Innovation Network. This elite group is defining for the nation the next generation of clinical innovations that restore humanity to healthcare.

Duffy was also an early pioneer in the creation of hospitalist medicine and launched programs to accelerate clinical discovery in the field of Integrative and Heart-Brain medicine, helping establish the Earl and Doris Bakken Heart Brain Institute. She previously served as Chief Experience Officer of the Cleveland Clinic—the first senior position of its kind in the nation—leading the institution in improving patient experience as its top strategic priority.

Note: For more information about Duffy and her efforts to alleviate doctor burnout, go here and here.

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