It's time to look past physician burnout. We're not saying to stop caring about burnout or to stop working on it. But, just focusing on burnout is not enough anymore. It's time to start planning for recovery.
Despite concern about a fourth Covid-19 surge, there is cause for hope across the nation. We have three authorized vaccines with more in the works, vaccination rates are going up, and the weather is getting warmer—we may even have a semi-normal summer.
But, for physicians, this hope is tempered. Physician burnout was a widespread problem before Covid-19, with 44% of physicians reporting burnout in 2019. And over the last year, physicians have been through the metaphorical grinder as both professionals and people. Even if they weren't in the ICU on the front lines of the pandemic, physicians have faced acute isolation, concern for their safety, fear for their families, never-ending change, and financial insecurity they never expected. Burnout is more acute and more widespread than ever before, with 71% of physicians reporting burnout as of September 2020. But the challenge health care executives face is now bigger than professional burnout. It's a human challenge encompassing burnout, exhaustion, stress, fear, trauma, and more.
Physician leaders fear the bill has come due. They're rightly concerned that adding the impact of the past 12 months to the pre-Covid burnout crisis will be disastrous for the physician workforce—with many physicians leaving organizations or the profession entirely.
5 keys to a successful recovery strategy
Right now, leaders have a short window to prevent an exodus if they prioritize, develop, and initiate a comprehensive recovery strategy. Rather than just deploying solutions to combat physician burnout, this strategic recovery should involve a plan for helping physicians at your organization heal—and not just from the past 12 months. To guide your recovery efforts, here are five lessons learned from physician executives already implementing comprehensive recovery plans.
- Recover, don't revert. The goal is not to return to "normal" because normal wasn't working for physicians as it was. Instead, use this time to sustain gains made in the past year and invest in time for the workforce to heal.
- Maintain the connections. Provider organizations made space for physicians to connect and support one another in response to the pandemic and social distancing. Consistently, progressive physician executives told us they plan to maintain or even increase these connection efforts within their physician enterprise because people still miss people. It's easy to lose momentum and that's exactly what not to do.
- Addition by subtraction. Every physician executive we've spoken with feels their team is exhausted. Leaders can make things better for their physicians by figuring out what not to do. This can mean improving physician practice day to day by reviewing and removing administrative tasks and requirements without a strong evidence base. Some executives told us they're pausing or delaying strategic initiatives because not adding to their workforce burden right now is more important.
- The cavalry isn't coming. An unfortunate reality is that physicians can't expect a sudden reprieve. Provider organizations won't be able to hire enough new staff to significantly reduce this burden. Rather, leaders should invest time and resources now to create space for the workforce to heal physically and emotionally.
- Plan for an end state, not an end date. It's imperative not to rush recovery. It will look different based on the market you are in, the impact on your workforce, and how individuals process their experiences.