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Career & Healthcare Industry

Doctor Burnout is Still Soaring — Can Artificial Intelligence Help?

Published May 27, 2023

Study after study has confirmed that, even post-vaccine, burnout among physicians and other medical professionals is still prevalent. Now, institutions are looking at AI solutions from new startups to reduce administrative burdens and help physicians do their job with less stress.


Defining physician burnout


We’ve heard a lot about burnout in the workforce in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but what exactly is it? The World Health Organization defines burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that coincides with chronic stress at the workplace.


WHO outlines three major dimensions of burnout as:


  • Feelings of physical or mental exhaustion


  • Increased feelings of negativity or cynicism toward one’s job


  • Reduced efficacy in the workplace


As you might imagine, physician burnout poses a particularly worrying trend because it can negatively impact patient outcomes, cause more medical errors, and even limit access to timely care when entire institutions are overburdened or overwhelmed.


Tracking the current spike


While many might assume that physician burnout was only an issue during the coronavirus public health crisis, burnout was actually on the rise in the years before the pandemic, as well. 


In 2019, the National Academy of Medicine published the consensus study report Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout: A Systems Approach to Professional Well-Being. The report came after years of changing attitudes towards burnout in the medical field.


For years prior, burnout was attributed to simply not being cut out for a stressful career in medicine. But the persistence of the issue pivoted the way doctors — and eventually researchers — thought about the problem. As Dr. Colin West of the Mayo Clinic recently told the New York Times,  there came a point where burnout “couldn’t just be pawned off as a handful of people who couldn’t handle the career.”


Unfortunately, awareness hasn’t resulted in the reduction of doctor burnout. In the summer of last year, Mayo Clinic Proceedings published a report that more than 60 percent of physicians had experienced at least one symptom of burnout in the last year. 


For context, this was an increase from 44 percent in 2017 and 46 percent in 2011. There was also a more than 10 percent drop in respondents who felt satisfied with their work-life balance. 


Speaking to the New York Times, the director of Duke University’s Center for Healthcare Safety and Quality, Bryan Sexton, said the Mayo Clinic’s published results were “the biggest increase of emotional exhaustion that I’ve ever seen, anywhere in the literature.”


Along with reduced efficacy in the workplace, doctors experiencing burnout are at greater risk for alcohol abuse, suicidal ideation, and — in the case of women physicians — a greater occurrence of suicide compared to women in other industries.

Causes of physician burnout


While the medical profession comes with inherent stresses and serious responsibilities of ensuring positive patient outcomes, they are often not a primary source of burnout. Instead, experts point to another culprit: administrative tasks.


Even before the pandemic, researchers were finding a correlation between burnout and the growing number of messages doctors were receiving about patients’ electronic health records. Early last year, Medscape published a physician survey where 60 percent of its respondents identified “bureaucratic tasks” as the main reason for their burnout. 


Arguably the starkest finding comes from a time-allocation study from the Advisory Board that found that doctors only spent 27 percent of their workday with patients. Where did the majority of their time go? To ​​EHRs and deskwork. The original findings of this study were published in 2016.


Of course, there are other contributing factors to physician burnout (labor shortage, covid-19 trauma, lack of mental health resources, etc.) but, writing for the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Michael P.H. Stanley of Brigham & Women’s Hospital sees a larger, business-driven crisis looming, one that threatens the sanctity of the medical profession itself.


“Nearly three-fourths of doctors in the U.S. are employees of a corporate entity and, increasingly, both patients and physicians are finding hospital systems to be as obstructionist as insurance and pharmaceutical companies,” he writes. “Big-box medicine… constrains a doctor’s hours, scope and place of practice, among other things.”


A similar sentiment was voiced by Stanford University oncologist Dr. Tait Shanafelt, who helped lead burnout research and remains wary of industry trends that incentivize things that separate doctors from their patients. “We cared about the quality of patients’ experience, building relationships with them,” he told the New York Times, “and then there were all these things we got paid for.”


Artificial intelligence to the rescue?


While the potential of AI disruption is being discussed across nearly every industry, Dr. Omer Awan wonders if the technology can be used to free physicians from administrative burdens and put them back where they belong: with their patients.


Writing for Forbes, Awan cites two startups who are helping institutions leverage AI and reduce EHR and deskwork for doctors. One is a French company named Nabla, which is developing a tool that would (with patient consent) listen to doctor-patient conversations and automatically summarize these conversations for the patient's chart. Doctors would still have to read back the summary to confirm its accuracy, but then could add it to the patient’s medical record with a simple click.


A second AI system, called Regard, relies on algorithms created by engineers and doctors “on a disease-by-disease basis.” Regard’s software then mines a patient’s medical records, sending data through a number of these algorithm decision trees, ultimately producing a diagnosis. 


Torrance Memorial Medical Center allowed Regard to run a case study at its facility and Regard claims to have reduced documentation time for doctors by 25 percent — and “measures of burnout” by 50 percent. 


Of course, many will be suspicious of AI systems like Regard when other headline-making AI tools have demonstrated biases and produced less-than-accurate results. However, Regard’s CEO, Eli Ben-Joseph, tells Forbes not all AI systems are created equal. 


“The supporting information is presented alongside the diagnosis so the physician can easily assess the accuracy of the diagnosis,” he says, noting that Regard does away with the “the ‘black box’ of most AI logic” and keeps human physicians in the driver’s seat.


Burnout and wealth management


If you’re a physician who is suffering from or worried about burnout, the last thing you want is your hard-earned income to be mismanaged — or managing it yourself to contribute to any stress you’re already experiencing. 


At Earned, we understand the unique challenges today’s physicians face when approaching their finances. That’s why we offer 360-degree wealth management for physicians who need a trusted partner for debt management, investments, tax planning, and everything in between.


Want to learn more? Reach out to an Earned Advisor today.

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