Prescription for Change

Good news: How to extinguish physician burnout

by Laura Martin

We've written a lot about physician burnout in the past few months, from the wide-ranging consequences for your hospital to the counterintuitive insights on who it affects to its status as an alarming epidemic plaguing modern medicine.

So now that we've got your attention, how about some good news? Read on to learn how three hospitals and health systems are taking a stand against physician burnout.

Use existing executive rounding programs to identify burnout

Ministry St. Joseph's Hospital, a 500+ bed tertiary care teaching institution in Marshfield, Wisc., is leveraging their existing executive rounding program to identify physician burnout—and stop it in its tracks.

While executive rounding certainly isn't new, and can be employed for a variety of objectives, St. Joseph's executives are rounding with the explicit intent to gain insight into what is causing burnout among their physicians. The rounding team consists of seven St. Joseph's executives who meet one-on-one with 50 high-impact physicians each quarter.

This program provides an opportunity not only for executives to identify key drivers of burnout, but to surface easy wins that can be addressed across the medical staff. Importantly, this isn't just another medium to push out what's happening from the C-Suite—the goal is simply to better understand the causes of burnout straight from the source. And even for those physicians who may not be feeling the effects of burnout, having a formal channel to provide feedback to administrators can be a powerful way to bridge the communication gap.

Program details:

  • The program consists of quarterly, 15-minute meetings with high-impact physicians, at a time and place convenient for them (typically their offices).
  • The list of high-impact physicians is updated annually and includes committee and department chairs, high admitters, high frequency proceduralists, and physicians with less than one year tenure.
  • The executive leading the conversation works from a structured script with an eye to burnout.
  • Issues voiced by physician are recorded in tracker, action plans are developed, and updates are provided.

Put a positive spin on data-heavy content by revamping scorecards

Mercy Health is a large, nonprofit health system with 23 hospitals, an ACO, a medical group, and 2,000 employed and affiliated physicians across Ohio and Kentucky. They recently revamped how they share performance data across the system, aiming to counter the effects of data fatigue and balance out negative feedback.

Because much of the feedback physicians typically receive is negative and/or quantitative in kind (e.g., Yelp reviews and patient complaints, complex benchmark and performance data), balancing this out is critical. Consistently hearing only negative feedback and comparisons to generic metrics can make physicians feel discouraged and like a cog in the organizational wheel—both of which can lead to burnout.

Mercy's scorecards now highlight enlightening patient and provider stories at the beginning of each section. They have also overhauled how they display data and drastically cut down on the number of metrics, so the scorecards are now displayed in a user-friendly, easy-to-read format.

Scorecard details:

  • The template consists of eight sections (system-wide and regional), each featuring a patient and clinician story up front.
  • Each section features takeaways from physician group, ACO, and hospital campuses limited to 200 words each and one page of data.
  • Data is displayed in an easy-to-read format, prioritizing metrics that are most impactful or pressing.

Offer art and communication programs for emotional support

Stanford Health Care, a 613-bed Academic Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif., has already been in the spotlight for their efforts to combat burnout. We profiled their innovative time banking program last year, which allows physicians to earn credits for typically unrewarded work (e.g., mentoring or covering colleague shifts) and redeem them for time-saving services (e.g., home-delivered gourmet meals or grant-writing support).

But Stanford is doing much more to combat burnout through their Center for Wellness and Professional Fulfillment. They are helping physicians address the emotionally taxing parts of their job through a series of arts and communication programs.

The series works to improve physicians' communication skills and facilitates networking with colleagues who've faced similar challenges. It also includes a variety of artistic outlets that allow physicians to explore emotional topics in a safe space and without judgment or fear of stigmatization.

Program components:

  • Ongoing educational workshops are held to improve physician communication skills and encourage sharing of emotionally challenging cases with colleagues.
  • They hold monthly peer-to-peer group literature sessions featuring a poem or short story, organized around a specific theme linked to burnout.
  • They have a quarterly program for physicians to write non-academic content and share aloud, with an emphasis on building a physician community to discuss job challenges and frustrations.

How to cross the communication chasm


Download our infographic to learn what four key changes you can make to your existing communication strategy to ensure your messages are getting through to all physicians.