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Health Tech Must Focus on Subtracting Steps From Physician Workflow


The only tech additions that medicine needs right now are ones that cut out stopping points between physicians and patients.

Browsing Reddit the other day, I happened upon a thread deep in the belly of the subreddit /r/medicine. It’s a hub of earnest physician feedback that provides important insights, especially for the health-tech community, whose role in mitigating the industry’s challenges and doubling down on its strengths becomes clearer with every new post.

If you want to get a feel for the tone of the conversations that take place in this virtual meeting place, look no further — the post below is the perfect microcosm for the purpose. Let’s take a closer look:

Is Medicine Worth It?

For anyone who takes misconceptions about physicians at face value, this might be a perplexing question. Aren’t all doctors happy, rich and living luxurious lifestyles?

No need to justify that one with a response. Many in the health-tech community have a good grip on the challenges inherent in both making an entrance into the world of medicine as a student and then sustaining a career in the industry thereafter. But the truth is that this question becomes increasingly relevant as physician burnout captures more headlines and we hear more about aggressively competitive medical schools, the increasing share of administrative tasks in physician workflows and the windfall of clunky tech entering the continuum of care.

>> READ: Why C-Suites Need to Get a Grip on Physician Burnout

So what did the medical professionals of Reddit have to say to this question? Fittingly, 570 responses ran the gamut from feverish regret to lukewarm indifference to pure gratification. But upon closer inspection, there's an observable pattern running through many of the responses: Physicians’ happiness or disappointment in their career was linked to their ability (or inability) to actually do their job. By and large, when we empower doctors to help patients solve problems, they’re happy. When we don’t, they aren’t.

Why Do People Make Medicine Their Life’s Work?

Here are a few examples from responses to the reddit post:

Medicine “is an interesting field, it's just that the interesting stuff comprises a smaller and smaller proportion of your time these days,” one user wrote.

“I definitely feel like a cog in the machine of medicine a lot of days. I often feel completely powerless to help people. Sure, there are a lot of things that suck about the job but, there are going to be just as many frustrating aspects to any career you choose,” said another.

And finally, “Sold my youth to learn the art of medicine to only be encumbered by debt, administrative work, productivity demands, dwindling public opinion and poor work life balance.”

Now before we spend the rest of our time together wallowing in sadness, it’s worth noting that many doctors said they’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. One user even said they plan to “die at the microscope,” and if they got a second chance, they’d take it without a second thought.

Empowering Physicians to Be Physicians

From all of these responses, one thing is clear: Physicians are driven, passionate people. They are committed to doing good work and making a difference. When we get in their way and prevent them from doing that, what are we left with?

The world we live in now. One where physician burnout gets worse every year and, by many estimates, is the new normal. That new normal is cyclical, and it goes something like this:

  • Increasing workload leads to physician burnout
  • Physician burnout leads to poor patient outcomes and decreased health system profits
  • Poor patient outcomes and decreased profits lead to increased physician workload
  • Increased physician workload leads to physician burnout
  • Repeat ad nauseum

>> READ: Fixing Physician Burnout Is More Than Just the Decent Thing to Do

This problematic cycle means that the medical community cannot possibly do its best for patients. It also means that billions of dollars are being left on the table. And where the dollars go, the solution-wielding startups flow. Every day it feels like a dozen new health-tech startups who claim to possess the burnout panacea emerge from the woodwork, positively drenched in hype and with a paucity of use cases to support their claims.

Many of these innovators, while pure in their intentions, may be adding to the pile of problems that health systems face — a new stopping point in the electronic medical record (EMR) or a new compliance checkbox, for example. What healthcare needs, rather, is innovation that subtracts steps from physician workflow. Good ideas that subtract minutes of data entry, or that subtract mouse clicks in the EMR that stand between a physician, a patient and a prescription.

It’s like putting a hole in a bucket — it’s the only thing you can add to the bucket that subtracts from its weight. The only addition the world of health tech needs right now is one that can reduce the number of menial tasks standing between physicians and the extremely meaningful work they do for patients.

Taking Necessary Next Steps

So what can healthcare executives do to accomplish that goal? First, if you aren’t already, begin measuring your staff’s engagement at work. It’ll provide the insight needed to improve that engagement. As renowned management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

Second, begin baking physician well-being into your business strategy. Each piece of tech that is being considered for implementation — regardless of its purported ROI and efficiency claims on paper — must pass the “physician well-being” test. If the tech stops physicians from doing their jobs and interfacing with patients, it’ll prevent them from enjoying the work they do and will lead to disengagement, which hurts patients and so on.

Finally, realize that the future of medicine depends on the strength of its purveyors. Not only is physician burnout hurting current physicians, it’s also deterring would-be entrants into the profession, who are increasingly opting for less demanding work and higher pay in industries like tech and finance — an especially disconcerting detail in the face of a looming physician shortage and an increasing burden of chronic disease.

Making the delivery of care more efficient and engaging is about subtracting unnecessary steps along the way. It’s about removing whatever prevents physicians from building trust with their patients. And it’s about showing physicians that their work is valuable and makes a difference. After all, the worst thing we could do for children who dream of becoming healers is to make them regret following their dreams.

Follow @theTomCastles on Twitter.

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