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Most doctors say they feel burnout regularly, many consider leaving medicine

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Doctors say they’re doing 15 hours per week beyond normal work hours, according to athenahealth’s new survey of physician sentiment. Some doctors have optimism that AI could help.

Nearly all physicians say they are experiencing burnout on a regular basis, according to a new report released Wednesday.

Image credit: athenahealth

Nele Jessel, chief medical officer for athenahealth, says many doctors are feeling burnout and considering a career change. (Image: athenahealth)

More than 9 in 10 doctors (93%) said they regularly experience feelings of burnout, according to athenahealth’s third Physician Sentiment Survey. The survey, conducted by the Harris Poll, surveyed 1,003 primary and specialty care doctors. Only 5% of the participants said they were customers of athenahealth, the electronic health record company.

Doctors said they are doing an average of 15 hours of work outside the office, or to use the increasingly common phrase, “pajama time,” according to the survey.

More than half (56%) of the physicians surveyed said they have considered leaving medicine, or staying in the field but no longer seeing patients.

With so many physicians expressing burnout, it means “our healthcare system’s in crisis,” says Nele Jessel, chief medical officer of athenahealth.

“It was very disturbing,” Jessel tells Chief Healthcare Executive®. “But it does not personally surprise me because I interact a lot with physicians. And this is what I hear across the board.”

Jessel says the most common question she gets from other doctors is what advice she would have about a career change to a job outside of medicine. She says that is “frankly, scary.”

She adds that it’s not just doctors thinking about changing careers, but nurses and other clinicians who are thinking about leaving medicine.

“And that doesn't bode well for us, for our U.S. healthcare system,” Jessel says. “So it behooves us, to really take those numbers very seriously and to discuss, what can we do to help physicians and alleviate that tremendous burden that they are apparently feeling based on those survey results.”

Technology: Roadblock and remedy

Many doctors point to administrative hassles as the chief contributor to burnout, and even as one who works for an electronic health records company, Jessel acknowledges, “technology is one of the culprits.”

Most physicians (94%) say that getting the right data at the right time is very important, but many are weary of information overload. Nearly two-thirds of doctors (63%) say they are so overwhelmed with information that it raises their stress levels. Most doctors (80%) don’t believe more data is the key to providing better care.

Even though technology is adding to the stress levels of clinicians, Jessel says, “Paradoxically, the answer to me means more technology.”

“Technology also has extremely high potential to help turn the tide around and help with physician burnout,” Jessel says. Specifically, she says digital tools that can reduce administrative burdens offer promise to help doctors focus on patient care.

“At the end of the day, that's the number one reason why burnout rates are so high, not because medicine is hard or no one wants to provide patient care,” she says. “Physicians and clinicians across the word love patient care. That's why they went into medicine in the first place.”

Optimism for AI

Many doctors see artificial intelligence as a tool to help them work better and reduce stress. This is the first athenahealth physician survey to ask about AI, and 83% of the respondents said they thought AI could reduce some of the headaches for physicians. Most say AI can help with administrative duties and in improving diagnostic accuracy. Jessel also sees the potential for AI to help physicians.

“I strongly believe it can, yes, if used appropriately and judiciously and with the appropriate guardrails, and, first and foremost, with clinician input right from the get go,” Jessel says.

“Our survey shows us pretty strongly that there is significant hope and optimism amongst physicians that AI can actually help reduce some of those administrative burdens,” she says. “But there's also understandably significant skepticism, and significant fear that AI will be yet just another thing that physicians have to deal with that’s super-imposed upon them without any input and without the appropriate implementation.”

A majority of respondents to the survey (60%) say the loss of human touch is their biggest concern with the growing use of AI, and a significant number of doctors (40%) say that they are worried AI will simply complicate healthcare.

The survey also shed light on the anxiety many physicians feel about the financial health of their practices.

Less than half of physicians (38%) say their organization is on solid financial footing, and 45% of doctors say they have the resources or tools to deliver quality care, the survey found.

Interestingly, doctors who belong to organizations using both fee-for-service and value-based care models are more likely to say their employer is faring well financially, as almost half (47%) of those using both models said their organization was in good shape. Only about a third who use a fee-for-service model exclusively (35%) and a value-based care model (31%) said their organization was faring well financially.

“There's still significant fallout from the pandemic,” Jessel says. Many organizations are continuing to deal with higher costs and inadequate reimbursements, she says.

“There's definitely financial pressure,” she says. “And again, I think, in a fee-for-service world, payment rates have not kept up with the increased costs. So practices are definitely feeling financially squeezed.”


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