Why Hospitals Can’t Afford to Ignore Physician Engagement

Imamu Tomlinson, MD, MBA, CEO of Vituity and President of the Vituity Cares Foundation

Imamu Tomlinson , MD, MBA

CEO of Vituity and President of the Vituity Cares Foundation

Published March 06, 2020

Doctor on his laptop dealing with physician burnout

As physicians and advanced providers, we all want to feel like what we do matters. But lately, it seems that many of us are experiencing an existential crisis that robs us of joy and meaning in our work. In January, Medscape released its 2020 Physician Burnout & Suicide Report. Of the 15,000 clinicians surveyed for the report, 42% reported feeling burned out.

While this number is a slight improvement over 2019, it’s still far too high. Our nation’s physicians, advanced providers, and patients deserve much better. In today’s post, I’ll share how healthcare organizations can fight burnout and promote workplace wellness by building a culture of physician engagement.

The cost of physician burnout

Burnout occurs in response to long-term, job-related stress. Symptoms include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment.

The current epidemic of physician burnout presents a significant threat to healthcare organizations. Physicians and advanced providers are the face of the hospital and its most direct link to its patients. What’s more, patient satisfaction strongly correlates with physician performance—both the quality of care and the relationship.

Research suggests that untreated burnout can also harm patients. A 2016 study found a significant correlation between moderate-to-severe physician burnout and medical errors. This may be due to the memory and attention impairments observed in people suffering from burnout.

In the bigger picture, the physician burnout epidemic also contributes to a deepening physician shortage in many parts of the country. Physicians suffering from burnout are more likely to leave the profession mid-career or reduce their hours. A 2019 study found that physician burnout costs the U.S. healthcare system about $4.6 billion per year in turnover and reduced productivity.

How physician engagement helps

Many organizations have responded to the physician burnout epidemic by offering wellness programs and resiliency training. However, while these programs can help, they don’t address the underlying cultural issues that drive physician burnout. According to the Medscape survey, these include:

  • An emphasis on bureaucracy and paperwork over direct patient care.
  • Lack of respect from administrators and colleagues.
  • Lack of control and autonomy.
  • Feeling like a cog in a wheel.

In summary, physicians are suffering from a profound lack of meaning in their work. Clinicians who chose medical careers to relieve suffering and make a difference in patients’ lives are instead bending to business and regulatory demands. This negative organizational culture keeps them from giving the best that is in them.

Under these despairing circumstances, physician engagement can be a game changer. Engagement may sound like a buzzword or vanity metric, but it has real consequences for healthcare organizations.

A higher rate of physician engagement correlates with enhanced patient care, lower costs, greater efficiency, and improved patient safety—as well as higher physician satisfaction and retention. Engaged physicians are 26% more productive and add an average of $460,000 in revenue to their organizations annually.

Improving physician engagement

A recent provider-wide survey revealed that Vituity’s doctor burnout rate is approximately half of the national average. While there’s still more work to do, we’re proud that we’ve been able to insulate our clinicians from some of the more destructive forces facing our profession.

We attribute much of our success to Vituity’s Joy in Medicine (JIM) initiative, which aims to create an environment where physicians can build long and satisfying careers. Much of JIM’s work involves culture building with an emphasis on physician engagement.

Some lessons on engagement from JIM and past initiatives include:

  • The first step to improving culture is to focus your teams on a common mission. Ideally, this should be something tied to physicians’ noble cause. For example, most physicians are highly motivated to improve care for the sake of patients.
  • Realize that physicians are your greatest assets for healthcare innovation. Encourage your medical staff to surface patient care issues and offer solutions. When possible, provide them with resources and protected time to bring these ideas to life. Some of Vituity’s most innovative programs were originally developed by front-line providers seeking solutions to everyday problems.
  • Partner with physician champions to spread change throughout your organization. When it comes to gaining buy-in for a controversial project, front-line physicians can sometimes work miracles.

Get to know your physicians, their pain points, and their motivations. When possible, provide them with resources to accomplish their goals. For example, you might offer leadership opportunities, administrative support, or stipends for participating in hospital committees.

Combat physician burnout with a culture of engagement

Today’s healthcare leaders can’t afford to ignore physician engagement. Engaged physicians are the lifeblood of healthcare organizations and our most direct link to patients. When their morale suffers, care quality and safety can suffer as well.

One of the best ways organizations can fight this epidemic of burnout is to create a culture of engagement. The best way to start is to focus your medical staff on a noble cause. You can also foster physician engagement by encouraging clinicians to innovate, providing resources, and publicly recognizing physician contributions to the organization.

While physician burnout rates appear to be improving slightly, the epidemic still represents a public health crisis. By working to engage physicians, healthcare leaders can ensure patients’ access to the satisfying, high-quality care they deserve.

Partnering to improve patient lives

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