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September 12, 2018

Can Virtual Care Help Prevent Physician Burnout?

Physician burnout is at a frightening all-time high. In a recent study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine, more than half of the 6,000 surveyed physicians reported feelings of burnout, fatigue, and/or suicidal thoughts. That’s an increase of more than 25 percent in just three years. And doctors are three to five times more likely to commit suicide than the population as a whole.

Physicians aren’t the only ones impacted by their burnout. Physicians (and particularly primary care providers) are leaving the profession at a faster rate than new ones are entering, exacerbating the already striking shortage of care and patient access. Beyond access to care, physicians with burnout are twice as likely to make a medical error. Given that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the US, this is staggering, even terrifying data.

“It can take 32 clicks just to give a flu shot!”

When asked to identify sources of their dissatisfaction, many physicians pointed to ever increasing amounts of paperwork, the demand to see more patients in less time, and poor work-life balance. It can take 32 clicks just to give a flu shot!

One solution that can help address each of these frustrations is a smart telehealth strategy.

Doctors went to medical school because they had a desire to help people, not because they wanted to spend twice as much time maintaining EHR and filling out paperwork than they do caring for actual patients. A virtual care solution that integrates fully with an organization’s EHR platform eliminates much of this extra time spent on paperwork. That increased efficiency then frees up doctors to spend more face-to-face time with their patients, allowing them to focus on those who need higher-acuity care as well as getting to know new patients better as they increase their panel size.

With all that paperwork and the demand to see more patients, doctors—who already work notoriously long hours—are sacrificing more and more of their personal time. That work-life imbalance takes a heavy toll. Telehealth provides an opportunity for physicians to be more efficient in the hours they spend at the office. Perhaps more impactful though, is the opportunity for them to take “appointments” from places other than the office, e.g. the gym or their child’s soccer game. Asynchronous virtual care solutions offer the most flexibility to treat patients when and where it is most convenient for the clinician (and the patient too). Everyone wins.

Telehealth also allows doctors to care for patients who might not otherwise be able to drive to the clinic, or who would avoid care for something simple in the hope that it would clear up on its own. Often, an easily treatable condition, like an ear or sinus infection, can develop into something more serious if the patient foregoes treatment because it isn’t convenient, especially if it requires a long drive or taking time off from work. Making it easy for those patients to seek treatment—and for clinicians to deliver it—through virtual care can save time and money down the road to address more serious conditions. This benefits patients and the doctors who care for them.

As a specific example of this in action, in New Mexico, Presbyterian was able to complete 310 virtual visits in their first three months. Normally, that many visits would take over 100 hours of clinician time, but their virtual care strategy enabled them to instead deliver that care with just over 10 total clinicians hours, with virtually no time spent on administrative burden. On top of that, this opened up 279 additional patient appointment slots, helping sicker patients see their provider faster.

“One of the highest impact solutions could very well be a virtual care strategy that both treats patients and improves physician satisfaction.”

The current situation is unsustainable, for all parties involved. Some physician groups and healthcare systems are working to create environments that allow for better work-life balance. Others are establishing peer-support groups and encouraging doctors to seek help from counselors. Those are great places to start and should continue. However, one of the highest impact solutions could very well be a virtual care strategy that both treats patients and improves physician satisfaction.

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