My guest post appeared on January 23, 2019 in Patient Safety Beat, a blog of the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety.
Health care organizations are moving to address clinician burnout with a real sense of urgency. It is now commonly accepted that burnout is widespread among health care professionals and has serious repercussions for patient safety and the quality of care. A report released last week by several major Massachusetts health care organizations labeled the situation “a public health crisis” and warned about the adverse impact “on the health and well-being of the American public.”
And though there is currently little evidence about how to effectively tackle the problem, the experience of hospitals and physician practices with various initiatives – and the lessons learned – provide a roadmap for beginning to address a crisis that is having a profound effect on the health care system.
While the term “burnout” is often used informally to indicate fatigue or boredom, it has been defined by psychologists as including three components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and inefficacy, or a low sense of personal accomplishment in one’s work.
The definition may be relatively clear, but there is little agreement about how to identify individual clinicians with burnout. The most commonly used survey tool was developed for research into causal factors, not for the diagnosis of burnout in individuals and the term burnout is often loosely used to include other associated but distinct conditions, such as depression, professional dissatisfaction, moral distress, and substance misuse. As Steven Adelman, M.D., Director of Physician Health Services in Massachusetts, notes, “Several different diagnoses have been conflated into the term ‘burnout.’ The word is often used as a catchall.”
When I was in residency training, I felt struggled with a conflict between my perception of reality and a seemingly widespread fallacy. As a human being, and especially as a human new at the tasks I was undertaking, I knew I was imperfect, yet the clinical world seemed founded on the belief that it is possible for humans to never make mistakes. Only perfection was acceptable. The possibility of unintentional medical errors was usually just denied. If errors occurred, they were seen as the individual health professional’s fault. In other words, if a mistake happened, I’m to blame, even if I was doing my best in a broken system, one that required multiple error-prone workarounds to complete a task. That conflict ate away at me, and was one of the factors that precipitated burnout and my decision to leave clinical practice several years later.
It was in the course of writing about the health care system that I first learned about organizational culture, which can be loosely defined as “how we do things around here.” It governs how people act, how they respond, how they treat each other. It is shaped by top leaders. They set the tone, model ways of being, and choose which behaviors to reinforce and reward, which to call out, and which to overlook (a choice that usually speaks louder than words). Leaders’ actions and choices demonstrate the organization’s culture for everyone else. Of course, there are micro unit cultures that differ across the organization, but the trickle-down effects of leaders show up here too.
For years I wondered why despite being a confirmed urbanite, I love camping. Then I realized that camping gives me full permission to improvise—to make creative use of the limited materials I have to get the job done. Hence, shirt tails are fair game for wiping coffee grounds out of measuring spoons.
Similarly, I am inspired by people and groups that use the resources we have at our disposal in health care in creative new ways. Like the first explorers, these folks are testing approaches to provide care that are more effective than the status quo. Given the escalating health care costs, we need to be looking for ways to make the available financial resources work better for us. And, studies have shown that health care delivery includes a lot of wasted time, resources, and supplies, due in part to use of higher-priced services with no health benefits over less-expensive alternatives.
At a recent meeting on patient safety, I heard about a novel way of using a previously untapped resource—emergency medical technicians (EMTs), those courageous first responders to 911 calls. I followed up with Matt Zavadsky, MS-HSA, NREMT, who is the chief strategic integration officer at MedStar Mobile Healthcare, which provides emergency medical services (EMS) in the Fort Worth, Texas area, to learn more about it. Here’s what he told me.
For decades EMS units have been paid only to respond to emergency calls and transport people to the hospital. If they were to transport a person who needed less intense care to a lower acuity setting, like a walk in center or a clinic, they would not be paid—representing overuse of higher-priced services. In addition, EMTs, especially those based in fire departments, often spend a substantial portion of their shift waiting for emergency calls—representing underutilized human resources.