How reducing burnout can help restore our calling

June 21, 2023 David Kim, M.D.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the United States just over three years ago, we had no idea how much it would change how we work, live and learn. As hospitals and clinics became overwhelmed, people began to understand that physicians and clinicians were giving their all in an unsustainable system. Cheered as heroes, medical workers across the nation were real people struggling to keep it all together.  

Burnout in the medical field finally began to get the attention it has long deserved.

Although the pandemic elevated national awareness around burnout among health care workers, this is an epidemic that preceded, then was exacerbated, by the pandemic. Nearly 2 out of every 3 physicians today say they’re experiencing burnout. This is a national crisis, and one that we’re working to address at Providence and within our clinical network. 

What’s causing so many doctors and clinicians to experience burnout, and often suffer in silence? The challenges and strains vary by specialty, by hospital, even by community. But there are some commonalities:

Your inbox is a pool that never empties.

Your schedule is jammed, but patient time is scarcer than ever.

Pharmacies know you by name because of the never-ending interactions.

Locating medical records outside of your network can be a hopeless task.

You feel more like an administrator than a physician.

It’s not simply about the number of hours we work. It’s not just because our caseloads are so high. It’s not about the time required to keep up with the latest research and journal articles. All of this adds to our workload, yet from what I’ve seen, heard and lived, burnout is about something else: the commoditization of health care. 

The relationship with our patients is sacred, and that connection is a key reason why so many of us became doctors. It’s what we are called to do. When health care becomes more about process than people, it reduces the joy we experience when living out our chosen vocation. 

What can we do to restore our calling?

At Providence, we know there is no panacea for the physician burnout epidemic. Our goal in tackling this issue is to restore doctors’ ability to feel present in their day-to-day work, for starters. We want to ensure that they feel connected with their patients and experience Sacred Encounters. We want to give our patients the time, care and results they deserve.  

One of our top priorities is to protect the mental health and well-being of our physicians and clinicians. This has always been a challenge, but it’s even harder today. Here are three things we’re doing:

  1. Giving physicians a seat at the table: The starting point of any meaningful change begins with a conversation, and I believe it’s essential to hear the voices of physicians and clinicians before ushering in greater change. What are the pressure points? What works, and what doesn’t? What makes for a good day, or a challenging one? What are their ideas for restoring joy to the profession? We then ensure that our physicians are included in the decision-making – from our physician-led boards to various committees at the regional and local level. If this sounds simple, it is. It’s critical, though. Change dictated from the top down rarely produces the best results. Change that is informed by all affected parties leads to sustainable solutions, rather than temporary stop-gaps. 
  2. Leveraging technology: The medical world is on the cusp of a paradigm shift in technology, and we now have the tools to intentionally shift some of the transactional work off clinicians’ plates. We need to make the right changes to our infrastructure (operations and technology) to allow for this paradigm shift in culture, which will free up our physicians to have more time and space to focus on the patients they see and care for. Take DAX AI, through which artificial intelligence automatically transcribes and synthesizes conversations between a provider and patient, then adds it to EHRs (electronic health records) for clinicians’ review and approval. We are rolling out DAX across our system, creating important efficiencies that allow our clinicians to be even more present with their patients. We also are doubling down on our investment and commitment to provide resources to improve tools and workflows in our EHR, helping to decrease the amount of time spent on administrative tasks like charting or sorting through an overwhelmed inbox.
  3. Investing in people: Systemic improvements and upgrades require investment. Doing more with less doesn’t work in business, and it certainly doesn’t work in medicine. We need to find the right way to deliver the right care at the right place at the right time. So how do we go about investing in change that doesn’t compromise care, given the current economic headwinds? You start by investing in our clinicians as partners, and our caregivers as a workforce. Empowerment and trust matter. And we need to understand that investing to bring about systemic change won’t always produce an immediate return on investment, dollarwise. We have to be OK with that and understand that to tackle the biggest challenges before us, we must have the patience to get it right. 

Finally, the physician burnout crisis requires all hands on deck. The toll is that large, and the need is that great. The AMA is working to address the issue, and those efforts dovetail with our approach at Providence. I’m sure many of you are working tirelessly to return the joy to medicine in your own ways, and I’m grateful for your efforts. 

Together, let’s work to create the right environment and infrastructure to serve both patients and practitioners. Let’s consider the benefits of a team-based care approach that allows everyone—including our physicians and care teams—to thrive in their roles to the great benefit of our patients.  

I would love to read your ideas and experiences in the comments. And I hope you will listen to my podcast, The Calling, which delves into physician burnout and other key issues facing our profession.

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