Earlier this week, I was asked an intriguing question by an interviewer: “If you had a magic wand and could have one wish for improving the well-being of clinicians and addressing burnout, what would it be?”
My response? Respect. Respect for the humanity of everyone who touches the health care system—patients, family members, administrative staff, organizational leaders, clinical staff, clinicians, cleaning staff, parking valets, pharmacists, lab technicians, front desk staff, and the folks who answer the phone and help with appointment scheduling.
My answer was not really a fair one. I believe that respect of this sort triggers a wide array of improvements and is only possible on an organizational level when all sorts of other support structures are in place and working well. So it was cheating on my part to choose one wish that encompasses many.
If we truly respect the humanity of everyone in health care, how would this change our approach to clinician well-being?
On a sunny day in July, I dutifully ensconced myself at my desk and connected to a half-day National Academy of Medicine conference on burnout. All the speakers were interesting, but my ears really perked up toward the end of the event, when Jo Shapiro, MD, director of the Center for Professionalism and Peer Support and Chief of the Division of Otolaryngology in the Department of Surgery at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an Associate Professor of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, spoke about the connection between leadership and physician well-being.
Her comments resonated with questions I’ve been contemplated a lot lately: What role do leaders have in addressing burnout among their physicians? And how do we compel them to do so, when they have so many conflicting priorities? Too often, leaders don’t seem to grasp the importance and severity of burnout, especially among their physicians. Most of the physicians with burnout whom I’ve interviewed describe little if any effective action from leaders to address the underlying causes of burnout.
I contacted Shapiro, who generously agreed to a phone interview. Here’s a recap of our conversation.
As a physician who left clinical medicine because of burnout and as a writer, I’m drawn to stories of physicians whose professional and personal lives have improved after reasoned interventions. So my ears jumped to attention earlier this month when a colleague at a summit on physician burnout described the positive results his practice had achieved in reducing burnout. Read Pierce, MD, is interim director of the Hospital Medicine Group (HMG) and is the associate director of the Institute for Healthcare Quality, Safety and Efficiency at the University of Colorado.
Leaders in HMG, a hospital-based internist group that includes 85 physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners, conducted a detailed survey three years ago as the first step in an effort to better understand the existing culture at work. The survey gathered information from frontline clinicians on engagement, satisfaction, burnout, mentorship, safety culture, and other topics. Results indicated that 45 percent of clinicians were experiencing some degree of burnout. Initially, leaders were unsure how to respond to the results, but they made a firm commitment to action, in part based on frustration with prior institutional surveys in which similar challenges were identified but little definitive change followed.
Pierce told me that the group sifted through the data and brainstormed on possible interventions. Over time, they chose 13 (an interesting number!) to take on. Here are three of them…