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Provides key steps to help you prevent physician burnout in your practice.
Offers strategies to construct a process to measure and improve physician well-being.
Presents examples of successful burnout prevention programs in a variety of settings.
Burnout is a long-term stress reaction characterized by depersonalization, including cynical or negative attitudes toward patients, emotional exhaustion, a feeling of decreased personal achievement, and a lack of empathy for patients.1 By measuring and responding to burnout you will be able to:
Reduce sources of stress.
Intervene with programs and policies that support professional well-being.
Recent studies show a national burnout rate of 43.9% among physicians in practice,2 including private practice, academic medical centers, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). With almost half of US doctors showing signs of burnout, and numerous adverse outcomes for physicians linked to burnout, 2 it is an important issue for organizations to address. Reducing burnout can have a positive impact on your practice, including improved patient satisfaction, higher physician retention rates, better morale in the office, and improved recruitment.
Establish wellness as a quality indicator for your practice
Start a Wellness Committee and/or Choose a Wellness Champion
Conduct an Annual Wellness Survey
Meet Regularly with Leaders and/or Team Members to Discuss Data and Interventions to Promote Well-Being
Initiate Selected Interventions
Repeat the Survey Within the Year to Reevaluate Well-Being
Seek Answers Within the Data, Refine the Interventions, and Continue to Make Improvements
Encourage your practice or organization to recognize the impact of burnout on physicians as well as patients, the quality of care delivered, and the financial impact (eg, through turnover). Establish well-being–the inverse of burnout—as a quality indicator that you regularly measure in your practice. Consider using annual burnout scores as a sign of the health of the practitioner workforce within your organization.
Why does burnout matter?
Stressful work conditions and burnout can lead to the following practice issues3:
Reduced empathy for patients.
Reduced patient satisfaction.
Decreased patient adherence to treatment recommendations.
Increased physician intent to leave the practice.
What are the benefits of addressing burnout?
By addressing burnout, practices and health systems are more likely to achieve other organizational goals, such as better quality of care, improved patient safety, more effective physician recruitment, and higher retention rates.
What factors can contribute to burnout?
Quiz Ref IDThe “Big 4” factors known to contribute to stress and burnout include:
Lack of control over work conditionsTime pressureChaotic workplacesLack of alignment of values (around mission, purpose, and compensation) between physicians and their leaders
Lack of control over work conditions
Lack of alignment of values (around mission, purpose, and compensation) between physicians and their leaders
Why does control over the work environment matter and how does it contribute to burnout?
Physicians who are unable to control their work are not able to balance the competing demands of the practice with their personal commitments. This results in increased stress and eventual burnout.2
When work demands are balanced by the ability to control one's schedule, burnout is less prevalent. When demands are heavy, workers (in this case, physicians) use work control to mitigate stress and avoid burnout. For example, physicians who are also parents often need to adjust end-of-day and start-of-day schedules to allow for dropping off or picking up children at child care. Having control over their workday reduces the likelihood of burnout.
“Burnout makes it nearly impossible for individuals to provide compassionate care for their patients.”Steven Lockman, MD, Senior Medical Director, Neurosciences, Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Service Line/Chief, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, MN
“Burnout makes it nearly impossible for individuals to provide compassionate care for their patients.”
Steven Lockman, MD, Senior Medical Director, Neurosciences, Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Service Line/Chief, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, MN
Wellness champions are individuals within an organization who promote the use of wellness resources, model positive behaviors such as leaving work on time, and encourage employees to complete the annual wellness survey. If you work in a solo or small practice, a wellness champion may be a better option than a committee.
A wellness committee should be made up of practitioners (eg, MDs, DOs, NPs, and PAs) from various disciplines and administrators from different departments (eg, finance, management) who can work with your practice or organizational leaders to measure burnout periodically. Committee members can then present data to practitioners and brainstorm solutions to challenges. The committee should plan to meet for about one hour each month to review current projects, plan new initiatives, discuss survey data, and respond to new opportunities or stresses.
Access Talking Points for Leaders.
Who should be on the wellness committee in my organization?
All relevant practice stakeholders should be involved in wellness initiatives. This approach can work for many types of practitioners, including hospital-based physicians, surgeons, non-office-based physicians, and advanced practice providers (APPs) like NPs and PAs. Depending on the size of the practice or organization, representatives can be drawn from different functional areas. Practice professionals will learn from each other and be able to spread findings and news throughout the organization.
The importance of conducting an annual wellness survey cannot be overstated. There are many benefits to conducting a wellness survey, including:
It is a great predictor of behavior. For example, asking people directly about their intention to leave an organization is more than twice as accurate than many predictive analytics models.4
It gives people the chance to feel heard. The act of completing a survey gives people a specific channel for expressing themselves, even when the results are anonymous. Anonymous surveys may yield a more accurate data set and higher response rate because it gives respondents a safe manner to express themselves. It can be a vehicle for change. Once practice and organizational leaders are aware of the results, specific interventions can be chosen to address concerns that are discovered through the survey.
With physician burnout itself attributed to organizational factors, solutions can be found—and should be made—at the organizational level. That's why it is crucial to recognize physician well-being challenges in your organization and to understand the types of solutions that can be tailored to the needs of your health system, its physicians, and its care teams. It is important to:
Select a validated assessment tool
Integrate measurement into your overall organizational strategy to improve physician well-being
Act on any significant findings that may serve to reduce burnout and increase professional satisfaction
The American Medical Association (AMA) can help you measure—and support—physician well-being. The AMA recognizes that a healthy, stable workforce translates directly to healthy care systems—and a healthier nation. Rigorous research and practice science are the foundation of the work we do to inform practice transformation efforts. Our ongoing research is advancing evidence-based solutions designed to increase Joy in Medicine™.
The AMA uses the Mini-Z burnout assessment, which is derived from work performed by Mark Linzer, MD, in the Physician Worklife Survey.5 The Mini-Z comprises 10 items and one open-ended question which assess satisfaction, stress, burnout, work control, chaos, values alignment, teamwork, documentation, time pressure, excess electronic health record (EHR) use at home, and EHR proficiency.
Our team of practice transformation experts can help you assess your workforce's well-being and offer guidance and targeted solutions that empower you to succeed in supporting their well-being and improving your bottom line.
If you would like more information about surveying the well-being of your organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Share burnout assessment data with your organization's leaders as well as other team members. Meet regularly to discuss the data. An easy way to share the results of the assessment is to create a document with summary data for all respondents. After reviewing the data, identify the areas of greatest concern, either by practice or department, or the entire organization as a whole. Based on the problem area(s), select appropriate interventions to address them. More information can be found in the article, “10 Bold Steps to Prevent Burnout in General Internal Medicine.”6
This figure shows how burnout-related symptoms can be reduced through ongoing measurement.
Should data be shared across the practice or organization?
That is a decision the wellness committee or wellness champion will have to make. Some leaders may become defensive if their results are poor. Others may want to see where they rank compared to others. Sharing the data across practices can provide an opportunity to introduce thoughtful and consistent programs throughout the organization to strengthen team culture.
Have a plan in place to address what you discover. If a prior survey did not result in meaningful actions, consider making some changes before resurveying to avoid “survey fatigue” and adding to burnout.
What about naysayers who believe burnout doesn't matter?
Appeal to what motivates them, including their experiences as a busy health care practitioner, administrator, or patient. You could ask, “Would you like having yourself or your family members receive care from a frustrated, cynical, or angry physician?”.
Emphasize the relationship between work conditions that lead to burnout and turnover and recruitment challenges. Replacing a single physician is estimated to cost between $500,000 to $1,000,000.6
Provide evidence of the relationships between burnout improvement and beneficial effects on quality and safety in your practice.
Assess changes as burnout decreases and present findings in key metrics like the patient experience, cost of care, and staff productivity.
Consider initially calling the committee “Retention and Recruitment Committee”
Quiz Ref IDPrioritize and select interventions to address burnout where it exists. Interventions generally fall into the following categories:
Better communication between practitioners in your practice
Quality improvement (QI) projects targeted to address clinician concerns
Access Tactics to Reduce Burnout.
Your practice may also consider developing a resource list that details how individual practitioners can reduce burnout through time management, delegation, exercise, sleep, and mindfulness. You can find additional resources within the STEPS Forward™ Physician Well-Being module.
Workflow redesign to reduce burnout may include: 1) pairing nurses or medical assistants (MAs) with physicians in set teams 2) improving preparation and organization by implementing pre-visit planning with pre-visit labs, 3) sharing tasks with non-physician staff, including having MAs document patient visit information in the medical record, and 4) improving workflows between MAs and appointment coordinators. You may also consider if time allotted for daily visits, procedures, or bedside inpatient care in your practice is sufficient or if it is causing time pressure for your team.
Please see other STEPS Forward™ modules for suggestions to improve workflow in your practice.
Communication intervention projects could include: 1) co-location of key team members (eg, MAs, nurses, and practitioners), 2) daily huddles to discuss complex patients and care coordination, and 3) scheduling monthly practitioner meetings focused on work–life balance or challenging situations in patient care.
Refer to other STEPS Forward™ modules for assistance with improving communication in your practice.
Quality Improvement (QI)
Selecting quality improvement projects that directly address physician concerns reduces burnout by empowering them to create change. Projects could include: 1) a streamlined prescription renewal process, 2) screening patients for depression, 3) employing non-clinicians to perform administrative duties such as tracking forms and sending faxes, 4) presenting burnout assessment results and developing solutions, and 5) implementing new processes to manage hypertension or pre-diabetes management programs.
A summary of interventions performed as part of the Healthy Work Place (HWP) study conducted by Mark Linzer, MD, and colleagues. Adapted with permission.
Should self-care interventions be included to reduce burnout?
Yes, while not the sole recommended intervention, self-care is an important behavior that physicians in your practice can use to reduce their individual stress levels and prevent burnout. Some self-care interventions include meditation, actively managing healthy sleeping and eating habits, participating in a regular exercise routine, engaging in hobbies, or taking mini-breaks throughout the day in a quiet space to decompress.
Will some interventions require a financial investment?
Yes, some interventions do have costs associated with them. But burnout is likely to be even more costly to your organization or practice. Each physician who leaves the practice creates additional recruitment costs, reduces revenue, and adds stress to the remaining physicians. This impact suggests that investing money now to reduce physician stress and burnout could provide significant return on investment down the road.
Are all interventions expensive?
No, many interventions are inexpensive, such as switching to refilling chronic meds for 12-15 months rather than 6 months. Re-engineering schedules and making team meetings more productive are additional examples of inexpensive interventions. However, some interventions do require resource investments, such as additional exam rooms for more efficient use of physician time to reduce chaos.
Another low-cost intervention is discussing clinic or departmental values. Lack of values alignment with leaders is a known contributor to stress and burnout, but you can alleviate this source of stress by making time to discuss and agree on shared values.8
For example, begin staff meetings with an interesting case and allow time for group discussion. Many physicians chose their profession for the medicine. Discussing rare or interesting cases can re-energize your physicians and help them reconnect with the joy of practicing medicine. Another free option is to create a list of values that your practice deems important.
This exercise can be valuable even in a solo practice. Consider starting with a short list to develop further, such as:
Quality over productivity
I've heard people talk about “meetings with meaning”. What are they and how can I use them as an intervention?
Practitioners have limited time to meet. Restructuring meetings to address clinical cases or challenging patients and issues of concern to them, rather than administrative issues, is a successful way to reduce practitioner stress. This type of meetings is considered a “meeting with meaning.”
What is “career fit” and how can that help practitioners?
Career fit is the extent to which individuals are able to focus their effort on the aspect(s) of work that they find most meaningful.9 Physicians often have a particular passion they wish to pursue (eg, education, research, QI). When the allotted time a physician has to pursue what they are passionate about falls below 10% to 20%, burnout has been shown to rise dramatically from 29.9% to 53.8%.9 Physicians may decide to devote part of their work week to what interests them most, whether that is workflow improvement or strengthening communication in the office.
Can burnout be helped by community service?
Some practitioners who are burning out may benefit from leading community service programs outside of the clinic, such as providing health education for children or adults. Studies have shown that community service may help reduce burnout, as it brings people closer to their true values and missions in medicine.10
What kind of interventions work for practitioners with very high burnout?
Add a comment box on the survey for those respondents who have the highest burnout score (ie, 5 on the 5-point scale, “I am so burned out I cannot go on…”) so that they can provide more information about reasons they feel this way. List a telephone number directly on the survey for a person to call for help, for example, the “Employee Assistance Program,” human resources, or a member of the wellness committee. When surveying anonymously, many organizations can provide an option for individuals experiencing high burnout to identify themselves to receive help and resources. Alternatively, if you do not survey anonymously, it is ethically necessary to let individuals know in order to respond in a manner that is comfortable and safe for them.
Compare prevalence of stress and burnout from before and after your intervention(s). Use a simple spreadsheet or graph to show changes in stress levels, burnout, satisfaction, control over work, chaos, and alignment of values over time. Develop an understanding of what worked and celebrate those successes. Examine factors that saw no change or a rise in burnout prevalence after the intervention and seek explanations and remediable solutions.
Use your burnout assessment results to determine which interventions are working, refocus on those interventions, and reinvigorate your team to carry them out in your practice. In areas where burnout is increasing or observed improvements are not sustained, analyze the results to guide new or modified interventions. The commitment of the wellness committee or wellness champion to the interventions may help convince your fellow practitioners that your practice is dedicated to staying on a path to reduce burnout.
What are the short- and long-term goals of this type of “measure, intervene, re-measure” program?
The overarching, long-term goal is zero burnout. Since burnout is a long-term stress reaction, surveying for high stress levels and then intervening may help prevent most cases of burnout.
A short-term goal could include bringing clinical and administrative leadership on board with wellness initiatives. Knowing your own data and addressing it to provide stability and improvement in the work environment is another short-term goal.
When do we stop measuring the impact of our wellness interventions? Can we stop if they appear to be working and sustained?
Medicine is a high-stress profession. Even if burnout in your practice is driven down to zero, stress may still exist, and the need to monitor it will not be eliminated. Keep on measuring and continue supporting successful programs.
Physician stress and burnout can have a significant impact on the quality of care delivered to patients, organizational productivity, morale, and costs. You can take corrective action early by identifying sources of stress and developing interventional approaches that will help your organization reduce burnout and promote the well-being of all practitioners.
Wellness interventions work.
Improving workflow within the practice is the most powerful antidote to burnout. This approach increases the odds of reducing burnout six-fold.5 Targeted quality improvement projects addressing clinician concerns increase the odds of reducing burnout five-fold.5 Improving communication between team members can improve the odds of professional satisfaction up to three-fold.5
Please see other STEPS Forward™ modules for guidance on practice redesign to improve workflow, communication, and practice culture.
Try not to embarrass or blame people with high burnout rates. Be supportive and encourage improvement. Congratulate leaders on identifying issues and taking steps to address the issue. Provide additional concrete actions they can take. Be creative with them in seeking ways to improve their department, unit, or practice. Function as a liaison with clinic administration to find best practices and advocate for bigger organizational or practice changes when they are needed to make a difference for individual departments or units.
Change is slow and steady.
Don't try to move the needle too far, too fast. Patience is needed to make sustained work–life improvements. Small improvements can make a difference in the day-to-day work lives of physicians, so do not be discouraged if you cannot make big changes right away.
The unsolvable can be solved.
Don't be intimidated or discouraged by your challenges. Ask your colleagues for possible solutions. You may find that the problem has been discussed and solutions have been identified but not shared across the organization. Be creative when looking for partners. Don't forget you could have allies in other departments, such as finance and billing, environmental services, or quality improvement. Every person will see the problem from a different perspective, so seek to understand what they see and how they would fix it.
Don't be afraid to create new work schedules.
Consider alternative clinic structures, such as “7 days on, 7 days off,” even for predominantly ambulatory physicians. At Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in Minneapolis, MN, graduating residents suggested a 7-on, 7-off model to encourage careers in ambulatory medicine. HCMC took their advice and developed a model program for new faculty hires. They've since hired two physicians and three nurse practitioners to join the two full-time clinicians with the 7-on, 7-off work schedules. The work schedule includes atypical work hours, but the practitioners have a week off in-between. They are leading the organization in certain aspects of innovation, such as measuring the impact of scribes and problem-oriented charting on quality of care, practitioner satisfaction, and clinic finances.
“The creation of a Provider Wellness Program at HCMC demonstrates that we recognize that the well-being of providers is critical to the health and wellness of our patients. Small changes that come from the suggestions of providers can be hugely impactful and strengthen the unity of the care teams, thereby improving the quality of care and satisfaction of patients, families, and providers.”Suzanne Schwartz, MS, Director of Operations, Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, MN
“The creation of a Provider Wellness Program at HCMC demonstrates that we recognize that the well-being of providers is critical to the health and wellness of our patients. Small changes that come from the suggestions of providers can be hugely impactful and strengthen the unity of the care teams, thereby improving the quality of care and satisfaction of patients, families, and providers.”
Suzanne Schwartz, MS, Director of Operations, Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, MN
If you standardize, customize.
Remember to adjust standard work for complex lives. Most busy practitioners' schedules don't fit comfortably in four-hour boxes (8 a.m. to noon, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.). Allow for flexibility, especially around the beginning and end of work shifts.
AMA STEPS Forward® presents actionable, practical toolkits and customizable resources that you can use to successfully implement meaningful and transformative change in your practice or organization. See How it Works
AMA CME Accreditation Information
Credit Designation Statement: The American Medical Association designates this enduring material activity for a maximum of 0.50 AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity.
Disclosure Statement: Unless noted, all individuals in control of content reported no relevant financial relationships.
Renewal Dates: February 22, 2016; May 23, 2019; May 22, 2020
Disclaimer: AMA STEPS Forward® content is provided for informational purposes only, is believed to be current and accurate at the time of posting, and is not intended as, and should not be construed to be, legal, financial, medical, or consulting advice. Physicians and other users should seek competent legal, financial, medical, and consulting advice. AMA STEPS Forward® content provides information on commercial products, processes, and services for informational purposes only. The AMA does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes, or services and mention of the same in AMA STEPS Forward® content is not an endorsement or recommendation. The AMA hereby disclaims all express and implied warranties of any kind related to any third-party content or offering. The AMA expressly disclaims all liability for damages of any kind arising out of use, reference to, or reliance on AMA STEPS Forward® content.
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