Fighting physician burnout: How tech can undo the damage done by EHRs

Solutions should reduce the burden of repetitive data input that now takes place and enable seamless ways for clinicians to talk to each other, experts say.
By Bill Siwicki
10:39 AM
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physician burnout

When it comes to doctor burnout, technology is both the problem and a potential solution.

“Let’s not dance around it – we all know how much the electronic health record has contributed to the physician burnout epidemic,” said Bridget Duffy, MD, chief medical officer at Vocera, co-founder of the Experience Innovation Network and former chief experience officer at the Cleveland Clinic.

“Physicians who once were absorbed in speaking with and examining their patients found themselves spending more time clicking through screens and pecking away at a keyboard.”

[Also: Epic's rival EHR vendors say they too are making the 'CHR' switch]

The widespread frustration felt by doctors wrangling with kludgy interfaces, interminable sign-ins and so many clicks is well-trodden at this point. Perhaps less understood, however, is how technologies including EHRs can be tuned to make physicians more efficient — and more happy.

Your IT: It just has to work

Making sure that the tools IT provides to doctors and, in some cases, mandates they use, actually work as it’s supposed to sounds basic but we all know that doesn’t exactly happen every time. 

Eliminating EHR downtime and service interruptions is one way to make life easier for all medical practitioners that engage the technology on a regular basis, said Scott Alldridge, CEO of the IT Process Institute.

[Also: EHR satisfaction survey 2017: After years of frustrations, user wish-list turns positive]

“Having systems not working properly, broken or simply not available is problematic, and downtime is much more frequent statistically than most users and organizations realize,” Alldridge said. “This is costly and can cause much user frustration and stress.”

Further, healthcare organizations should ensure an EHR is well integrated with all critical systems and data, making it much easier for practitioners to get to the information needed quickly – and hopefully with ease, for example, using things like single-sign-on technologies, he said.

Easing the doctor’s overwhelming paper problem with better document management and data abstraction can help ease the stresses that lead to physician burnout, said Par Bolina, MD, chief innovation officer at health IT consulting firm IKS Health.

“Even in the digital age of EHRs, one of the greatest challenges physicians face today is appropriately collecting, filing and capturing clinical data from the mountains of paperwork that their offices still receive,” Bolina said. “Important test results are sometimes lost amidst the large amount of paperwork still being sent from outside specialists and diagnostic centers.”

And in the exam room, while trying to see their patients, precious time can be lost while doctors search for scanned reports in EHRs. Clinically relevant information must be identified and filed in the appropriate discrete data fields of an EHR.

“This means that the information is quickly searchable and readily available during a visit,” Bolina said. “It also means that the information is reportable and contributes to the critical clinical quality reporting that organizations require in a world of value-based care.”

Communication is critical

Hospitals and tech vendors alike must identify and understand the inherent trauma that antiquated systems, technologies and complex processes have imposed on clinicians.

Duffy cited three tactics that can make a difference today in facilitating a better human-to-human connection between clinicians and patients.

First, healthcare organizations need to use technology that streamlines communication inside and outside the four walls of the hospital.

“Physicians and nurses are constantly leaving messages for each other, as it’s rare to connect on the first attempt,” Duffy said. “Imagine the stress it causes to be in such frequent wait-mode, especially if you need to speak to someone about urgent health matters. By mapping the gaps in communication processes between physicians, nurses and other care team members, hands-free communication devices and secure smartphone apps can reduce a 30-minute wait to a near instant transaction.”

Second, hospitals and clinics should seek technology solutions that reduce the burden of repetitive data input that now takes place and enable seamless ways for clinicians to talk to each other, Duffy advised.

And third, hospitals need metrics to assess whether a technology actually eases the burden of being a doctor or a nurse, Duffy said. Healthcare organizations need to measure things like staff well-being or burnout and clinician resilience before and after a new technology or process improvement initiative is deployed.

“The right technology can, to a surprising degree, help ease burnout among clinicians by simplifying processes and removing hassles,” Duffy said. “Reconnecting people back to purpose and utilizing technologies that enable a healing interaction will allow clinicians to have joy back in the practice of medicine.”

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
Email the writer: bill.siwicki@himssmedia.com