Yes, you can beat burnout. Here's where to start.

Editor's note: This story was updated on November 7, 2017.

Aly Seidel, Daily Briefing

More and more physicians report feeling burned out—but many health care organizations don't know how to address the issue. The Daily Briefing's Aly Seidel sat down with Advisory Board experts to discuss three key opportunities to identify and beat physician burnout.       

Mitigate physician burnout with these 4 key strategies

Why burnout matters

Physician burnout can manifest in many ways, but the three defining features are emotional exhaustion, indifference toward patients, and a lack of a feeling of personal accomplishment. Fifty-four percent of U.S physicians reported feeling at least one symptom of burnout in 2014, up from 45 percent in 2011, according to an American Medical Association survey.

Most organizations realize addressing physician burnout is a priority, but many simply don't know where to begin, says Nicole Clarke, a consultant with Advisory Board's Medical Group Strategy Council.

Tackling the issue is especially important today, she says, because physician burnout can cause problems across the organization. According to one study, burned-out physicians had 16 percent lower patient satisfaction scores compared to their non-burned out colleagues. In another, burned-out surgeons reported an 11 percent increase in medical errors. And increased turnover due to burnout can cost up to $1.2M per physician, according to data from Cejka Search and Advisory Board.

Some physician stressors, such as continued EHR rollouts and increased workloads, are inevitable—but widespread burnout doesn't have to be the result, says Clarke, who offers three keys to surfacing and combating burnout.

1. Listen to your physicians.

To solve burnout, administrators first have to understand it.

"Burnout can be extremely hard to spot," Clarke says. "You can't simply look at someone and predict based on demographics or specialty whether that physician is burned out. That why we say combatting burnout has to start with hearing directly from your physicians."

"Burnout can be extremely hard to spot," Clarke says. "You can't simply look at someone and predict based on demographics or specialty whether that physician is burned out. That why we say combatting burnout has to start with hearing directly from your physicians."

Laura Martin, a senior analyst with Advisory Board's Physician Executive Council, says that a listening campaign is the "crucial first step" to addressing burnout. "It's everything," she says. "Before you go chasing down a solution, pause and listen. Burnout can look very different from organization to organization and physician to physician, so listening first and really understanding the problem can be the key to success."

To better understand their physicians' trigger points, seven executives at Wisconsin-based Ministry St. Joseph's Hospital schedule 15-minute, one-on-one meetings with 50 high-impact physician leaders every quarter. Those conversions have helped the executives unearth issues that were affecting the clinical staff and develop an action plan to resolve them.

"Executive rounding isn't new," Clarke says. "But by getting in the trenches, the team at St. Joseph's heard from the front lines what was contributing to physician burnout—and they could tackle the easy  wins that were applicable specifically to their hospital."

2. Give your doctors well-rounded feedback.

Successfully delivering feedback can be tricky. Being too data-heavy heavy, with a focus on specific outcomes and productivity measures, may seem overly transactional and impersonal. But focusing on narrative comments from internet sources, such as Yelp, often showcases only the loudest—and most negative—voices. This can leave physicians feeling unappreciated and unrecognized, which can contribute to burnout, Clarke says.

One way to round out the quantitative and sometimes negative feedback, Clarke says, is to include positive stories from patient satisfaction surveys. Supplementing internet comments and quantitative data with positive patient feedback can paint a more complete picture.

In New York, Olean Medical Group leaders found that physicians were receiving mostly negative feedback—even when doctors were doing an overall positive job. To address the issue, they pulled positive feedback from patient satisfaction surveys, particularly comments that showed how much patients appreciated some of the extra things their doctors did, such as helping them schedule a referral appointment or access their medical records online.

Those stories can't be captured in quantitative measurements, but they make a difference to patients—and it can be heartening for physicians to hear that they're appreciated when they go above and beyond.

3. Get your clinicians the support they need.

There's no way around it: Physicians are under a lot of pressure. And even if organizations provide resources to support physicians, doctors may not utilize the assistance for various reasons, including stigma around seeking help or institutional policies that dissuade physicians from taking the necessary time for self-care.

To encourage physicians to utilize mental health resources, Stanford Health Care created a series of programs that allow physicians to communicate about the emotional challenges of their jobs. The programs are grounded in peer support and group activities, and they encourage physicians to communicate in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

Jacqueline Genovese, an assistant director of the program, says the groups help physicians open up. "The stories we hear in class are so inspiring," she says. "Sometimes [participants] are emotional, and they apologize for crying, but the group says, 'No, no. That's what we're here for.' There's a true sense of being in this together."

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