From the Journals

Roots of physician burnout: It’s the work load



Organizational strategies to reduce physician burnout

Coauthors of the study, Tait D. Shanafelt, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford (Calif.) University and Colin P. West, MD, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., are both experts on physician well-being and are passionate about finding new ways to reduce physician distress and improving health care delivery.

Dr. Tait D. Shanafelt, hematologist oncologist and translational researcher of chronic lymphocytic leukemia of Stanford Medicine

Dr. Tait D. Shanafelt

“Authentic efforts to address this problem must move beyond personal resilience,” Dr. Shanafelt said in an interview. “Organizations that fail to get serious about this issue are going to be left behind and struggle in the war for talent.

“Much like our efforts to improve quality, advancing clinician well-being requires organizations to make it a priority and establish the structure, process, and leadership to promote the desired outcomes,” said Dr. Shanafelt.

One potential strategy for improvement is appointing a chief wellness officer, a dedicated individual within the health care system that leads the organizational effort, explained Dr. Shanafelt. “Over 30 vanguard institutions across the United States have already taken this step.”

Dr. West, a coauthor of the study, explained that conducting an analysis of PTL is fairly straightforward for hospitals and individual institutions. “The NASA-TLX tool is widely available, free to use, and not overly complex, and it could be used to provide insight into physician effort and mental, physical, and temporal demand levels,” he said in an interview.

Dr. Colin P. West

“Deeper evaluations could follow to identify specific potential solutions, particularly system-level approaches to alleviate PTL,” Dr. West explained. “In the short term, such analyses and solutions would have costs, but helping physicians work more optimally and with less chronic strain from excessive task load would save far more than these costs overall.”

Dr. West also noted that physician burnout is very expensive to a health care system, and strategies to promote physician well-being would be a prudent financial decision long term for health care organizations.

Dr. Harry, lead author of the study, agreed with Dr. West, noting that “quality improvement literature has demonstrated that improvements in inefficiencies that lead to increased demand in the workplace often has the benefit of reduced cost.

“Many studies have demonstrated the risk of turnover due to burnout and the significant cost of physician turn over,” she said in an interview. “This cost avoidance is well worth the investment in improved operations to minimize unnecessary task load.”

Dr. Harry also recommended the NASA-TLX tool as a free resource for health systems and organizations. She noted that future studies will further validate the reliability of the tool.

“At the core, we need to focus on system redesign at both the micro and the macro level,” Dr. Harry said. “Each health system will need to assess inefficiencies in their work flow, while regulatory bodies need to consider the downstream task load of mandates and reporting requirements, all of which contribute to more cognitive load.”

The study was supported by funding from the Stanford Medicine WellMD Center, the American Medical Association, and the Mayo Clinic department of medicine program on physician well-being. Coauthors Lotte N. Dyrbye, MD, and Dr. Shanafelt are coinventors of the Physician Well-being Index, Medical Student Well-Being Index, Nurse Well-Being, and Well-Being Index. Mayo Clinic holds the copyright to these instruments and has licensed them for external use. Dr. Dyrbye and Dr. Shanafelt receive a portion of any royalties paid to Mayo Clinic. All other authors reported no conflicts of interest.


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