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From Devastation to Determination, One Advocate’s Mission to End Physician Burnout

The HIMSS Global Health Conference & Exhibition doesn’t end when the convention center doors close. Attendees leave with knowledge from educational sessions, speakers and networking that can be applied to the real world, creating an ongoing, year-round experience. HIMSS asked attendees to share the personal and professional successes that stemmed from attending conference–from challenges faced to changes made. Read on to learn about the value of attending HIMSS Global Health Conference from the unique perspective of our members and partners.

Janae Sharp

Every year, the number of physicians at risk of burnout increases. According to the Institute of Medicine, more than half of physicians show signs of burnout.

Symptoms of physician burnout can include:

  • Physical exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Detachment
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness
  • Lack of accomplishment

Burnout among physicians is a growing problem, and can lead to medical error and patient death. Two big contributors to physician burnout are work systems that don’t allow for healthy physicians and a lack of coping tools for doctors affected. Unfortunately, after a certain threshold of burnout, physicians may be unwilling to seek help. It is a significant problem not only for the healthcare industry, but for families of physicians–and it’s one I take personally.

A Personal Mission

HIMSS enabled my nonprofit, an organization dedicated to reducing physician suicide through awareness and data science, to get its nonprofit designation. It was created in the memory of John Madsen, my late husband, with whom I have three children. John suffered from severe depression and physician burnout, which were inextricably linked; he died by suicide before completing his residency for pathology.

The nonprofit is part of my personal mission to reduce the epidemic of physician suicide. My children lost their father to suicide 3 years ago. Our mission is to leverage healthcare informatics and use that technology to save lives, with the goal that no children should have to endure the loss that mine have.

An Industry-Wide Focus

At the HIMSS Global Health Conference, many of the presentations were centered around solutions for physician burnout and the challenges that electronic medical systems have caused. Dysfunctions of electronic health records–such as clicking codes to create billing during and after hours – have contributed greatly to physician stress and diminished job satisfaction. Electronic health record vendors are only now beginning to address this issue.

RELATED: Why Health IT Must Consider Physician Workflow

At the global health conference, I was able to meet and collaborate with experts both in physician burnout and in health records, as well as data scientists, who offered ideas about how to structure research into solutions. It’s an unusual opportunity to walk into a room where there are so many experts who have worked on electronic health records. The atmosphere of HIMSS allowed attendees to connect in person and talk informally about what has worked. These important conversations may help to create transformational care delivery and workplace satisfaction for physicians.

Watch Sharp, talk with HIMSSTV about developing strategies to identify doctors who are having trouble with technology before it leads to burnout.

Using Data to Better Understand a Complicated Problem

With the help of another organization interested in solving the problem of burnout, we recently sent out a survey to physicians–some responders even reached out for help. Our results showed that the physicians with the highest risk were more likely to hide their identity in their responses to index questions. The designation “high risk,” in this case, included high burnout and high scores for depression. Respondents who reported “very high” burnout rates usually did not want to take advantage of anonymous tools and peer support.

Some responses were from doctors who exhibited a high burnout score, but not a high stress score–so they have better than expected mental health, given their job satisfaction. In some of those cases, the physician self-reported that they were getting help, but had a stressful job. There is a “sweet spot,” wherein physicians are under a lot of stress but not completely burned out and are willing to seek help. We need to be better at identifying physicians that need help and making it safe and accessible while we improve healthcare systems.

Qlik Dashboard

Image courtesy of Sharp Index

Working Toward Solutions

It is complicated to determine how much physician burnout is driven by a broken healthcare delivery system and how electronic health records specifically contribute to that burnout. Many describe burnout as a moral injury and physicians can show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their experiences. Treatment for burnout and improvement can mimic treatment for PTSD.

Physicians as a group are at high risk for burnout–and some of that comes from cultural or systematic issues. Research shows that we can begin to address this issue by giving physicians better tools to cope with stress. Revitalizing medicine should come from the system and the individual. However, many physicians are afraid to seek help, or too mired in depression to know that they are deeply in need of assistance. Anonymous coping tools can give doctors the opportunity to connect with mental health resources without any associated stigma.

RELATED: Physician Burnout from a Provider’s and an Advocate’s Perspective

We’re also seeking to examine the differences and overlaps between depression and burnout; these currently aren’t well defined, but many of the symptoms are the same. Some criticize using the term “burnout” when talking about physician mental health, especially considering the relatively high risk of suicide for physicians.

There is so much opportunity for improvement.

HIMSS Global Conference was invaluable for what we are trying to accomplish; having such a large group of expertise and options in one place is part of the magic. But the greatest takeaway was the realization of a shared commitment from so many industry partners–doctors, health records managers and other experts–in putting an end to the problem of physician burnout.

It is truly a mission to save lives and our goals were advanced tremendously from the work of this network of committed and tireless individuals.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.

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Originally published October 16, 2018, updated July 6, 2019

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