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January 24, 2019

New Findings on Physician Burnout: Key Takeaways

MHT Partners  | Healthcare Investment Bank

Last week, six authors affiliated with the Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Harvard Global Health Institute released a headline-grabbing paper titled “A Crisis in Health Care: A Call to Action on Physician Burnout.” The authors believe that the extent of physician burnout constitutes a public health crisis and offer a handful of prescriptions for improving providers’ work experience. What does it all mean for healthcare investors, practitioners, and entrepreneurs who are looking to the future state of the U.S. healthcare system? MHT Partners, a leading healthcare services investment bank, highlights a few key takeaways:

  1. Increased screen time is crushing physician morale:  A number of high-profile providers have sounded alarms recently, including Dr. Atul Gawande in the New Yorker, about the demoralizing effect that electronic medical records (“EMRs”) are having on the day-to-day practice of medicine. Incessant documentation in unfriendly systems is resulting in less time working directly with patients, and yet more time worked overall. Solutions that extract the benefits of EMRs while easing the burden on physicians – whether the solution be technological, organizational, or operational – will surely improve the lives of practitioners, and in turn, outcomes for patients.
  2. Overwhelming administrative tasks have further infringed on face time with patients:  In addition to EMR documentation, physician burnout stems from more time spent on administrative tasks “that do little if anything to advance the goals of patient care.” Further, it appears that regulatory and administrative burdens have contributed to a shift in young doctors’ preference away from practicing independent, entrepreneurial medicine towards a so-called employed-physician arrangement. While the employed-physician model works well in many environments, rural geographies that rely on independent practitioners may become underserved over time, with clinical leadership by small-group physicians dwindling significantly. Companies working to streamline administrative practices (e.g., regulatory reporting, payor documentation) are positioned to make a significant impact on practicing physicians’ lives.
  3. Structural attention to physician mental health, physical health, and wellbeing needs to be augmented:  The paper’s authors advocate to both “support proactive mental health treatment and support” and “appoint executive-level chief wellness officers”, underscoring the reality that physicians cannot provide high-quality care to patients until they are in receipt of well-rounded, high-quality care themselves. Easing the access, acceptability, and curriculum of treatment specifically for physicians is perhaps the most rapid avenue to relieving overburdened physicians.

In addition to the paper’s findings, we note that in practice it is not only physicians who experience burnout as a result of EMR requirements, excessive administrative tasks, and a historical lack of attention on wellbeing. Nurses, physician assistants, and other practitioners experience the exact same stresses and are deserving of solutions to alleviate burnout. A shortage of healthcare professionals is anticipated in the coming decades, and any improvements that incentivize the practice of medicine as a career path will be increasingly valuable. As the paper notes, “it is not that physicians are inadequately ‘tough enough’ to undertake their work, but that the demands of their work too often diverge from, and indeed contradict, their mission to provide high-quality care.”

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