Asking physicians this one simple question may hold the answer to burnout

Many health care organizations across the country are taking leaps to address burnout. There are advisory boards formed solely to tackle the issue, access to yoga and meditation, as well as online programs and interactive workshops — just a few examples of efforts aimed at curbing this epidemic. These are steps in the right direction. However, physician burnout is a systemic problem, rooted deep in medicine’s culture, and these steps are not enough. For far too long, the treatment of physicians and their working conditions has become socially acknowledged and even dramatized on television. Surely, most employees would be up in arms should they have to work 28-hour shifts in almost any other profession. Health care organizations need to start thinking about how a change in the overall system can alleviate the problem.

Asking physicians how they’re doing sounds simple enough, right? The mere fact that we are having conversations about physician burnout on a national stage is progress. Instead of continuing to indulge a culture in medicine that rewards silence, real change will happen when we encourage physicians to talk about the truly unhealthy conditions they’re facing, that are affecting their well-being and the well-being of their patients.

The saying “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” has never been more relevant. A few months ago, we saw signs indicating that perhaps burnout was decreasing among physicians. Findings from a survey conducted by researchers from the American Medical Association, Mayo Clinic, and Stanford University School of Medicine showed that for the first time in six years, the number of physicians suffering from burnout dropped. However, a report published just this summer shows burnout may be raging more than ever, particularly among primary care physicians, of which 79 percent say they have experienced symptoms of burnout, compared to 68 percent of all physician specialties surveyed.

These inconsistencies indicate that it’s not enough to look at the symptoms; we need to get to the root of this problem. What is the operational cause of the burnout? Is there a facet or policy that can be changed within all health care organizations that can result in a consistent positive change? Only more information and data from a much larger pool of physicians will give us what we need to find the source of the physician burnout crisis. Without it, medicine will continue to suffer.

Yoga, meditation, advisory boards — these are all signaling a growing awareness of how prevalent the problem of burnout is. But these are only the very tip of the iceberg; hospitals and health systems could have a significant impact by checking in with their physicians to ask how they’re doing — and ensuring that physicians are provided a safe and judgment-free space in which to answer honestly. We can end physician burnout. Now is the time to start measuring physician satisfaction in order to gather feedback and discover what really works to improve physician wellness.

Dianne Ansari-Winn is an anesthesiologist and founder, Physician Vitality Institute, and a member of the medical advisory board, Lightning Bolt Solutions.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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