Physician burnout is a public health crisis and addressing the problem requires improving electronic health record (EHR) standards with a strong focus on usability and open application programming interfaces (APIs), according to a new report from leading healthcare researchers.
The report is a “call to action,” the researchers wrote, “to begin to turn the tide before the consequences grow still more severe.” The researchers also recommend “systemic and institutional reforms” that are critical to mitigating the prevalence of burnout.
The result of collaboration between researchers with the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Harvard Global Health Institute, the report's aim is to inform and enable physicians and health care leaders to assess the magnitude of the challenge presented by physician burnout in their work and organizations, and to take appropriate measures to address the challenge, the researchers say.
The report also offers recommended actions for healthcare leaders to take, which the researchers acknowledge are not exhaustive, but “represent short-, medium-, and long-term interventions with the potential for significant impact as standalone interventions.”
The authors of the report include Ashish K. Jha, M.D., the K.T. Li Professor of International Health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute; Andrew Iliff, lead writer and program manager, Harvard Global Health Institute; Alain Chaoui, M.D., president of the Massachusetts Medical Society; Steven Defossez, M.D., vice president, clinical integration, Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association; Maryanne Bombaugh, M.D., president-elect, Massachusetts Medical Society; and Yael Miller, director, practice solutions and medical economics, Massachusetts Medical Society.
In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78 percent of physicians surveyed said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout. Burnout is a syndrome involving one or more of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession, according to the report.
By 2025, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that there will be a nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven away from medicine or out of practice because of the effects of burnout. Further complicating matters is the cost an employer must incur to recruit and replace a physician, estimated at between $500,000-$1,000.000.
“The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” Dr. Jha, a VA physician and Harvard faculty member, said in a statement in a press release accompanying the report. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines – our physicians – are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.”
The beginning of the physician burnout crisis can be traced back to several events, according to the researchers, including the “meaningful use” of electronic health records, “which transformed the practice of many physicians, and was mandated as part of the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.” Going back further, the 1999 publication of the Institute of Medicine’s “To Err is Human” highlighted the prevalence of medical errors, brought new attention to quality improvement and the value of physician reporting and accountability, the report states.
The researchers note that the primary impact of burnout is on physicians’ mental health, “but it is clear that one can’t have a high performing health care system if physicians working within it are not well. Therefore, the true impact of burnout is the impact it will have on the health and well-being of the American public,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers note, “If we do not immediately take effective steps to reduce burnout, not only will physicians’ work experience continue to worsen, but also the negative consequences for health care provision across the board will be severe.”
And, while individual physicians can take steps to better cope with work stress and hold at bay the symptoms of burnout, “meaningful steps to address the crisis and its root causes must be taken at a systemic and institutional level,” the researchers wrote.
According to the researchers, the primary drivers of physician burnout are structural features of current medical practice. “Only structural solutions — those that better align the work of physicians with their mission — will have significant and durable impact,” the researchers wrote in the report.
To that end, the researchers’ immediate recommendation is for healthcare institutions to improve access to and expand health services for physicians, including mental health services.
In the medium term, technology can play a large role. Addressing physician burnout will require “significant” changes to the usability of EHRs, the researchers wrote, including reform of certification standards by the federal government; improved interoperability; the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) by vendors; dramatically increased physician engagement in the design, implementation and customization of EHRs; and an ongoing commitment to reducing the burden of documentation and measurement placed on physicians by payers and health care organizations.
New EHR standards from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) that address the usability and workflow concerns of physicians are long overdue, the researchers state. One promising solution would be to permit software developers to develop a range of apps that can operate with most, if not all, certified EHR systems, according to the report. The 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 mandates the use of open APIs, which standardize programming interactions, allowing third parties to develop apps that can work with any EHR with “no special effort.” There already have been efforts on this front, such as Epic’s “App Orchard,” the researchers note, but more work remains to be done.
To expedite this critical process of improvement, the report recommends physicians, practices, and larger health care delivery organizations, when seeking to purchase or renew contracts for health IT, adopt common RFP language specifying and requiring inclusion of a uniform health care API.
The researchers also say that artificial intelligence (AI) can play a promising role as AI technologies can support clinical documentation and quality measurement activities.
Long term, healthcare institutions need to appoint executive-level chief wellness officers who will be tasked with studying and assessing physician burnout. Chief wellness officers also can consult physicians to design, implement and continually improve interventions to reduce burnout, the researchers wrote.
“The fundamental challenge issued in this report is to health care institutions of all sizes to take action on physician burnout. The three recommendations advanced here should all be implemented as a matter of urgency and will yield benefits in the short, medium, and long term,” Jha and the research team wrote.