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Counting the costs: US hospitals feeling the pain of physician burnout

By Julie Steenhuysen, Reuters | Nov 21, 2017

ANN ARBOR  — Dr. Brian Halloran, a vascular surgeon at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor, starts planning his garden long before spring arrives in southeast Michigan.

His tiny plot, located in the shadow of the 537-bed teaching hospital, helps Halloran cope with burnout from long hours and the stress of surgery on gravely ill patients.

“You really have to find the balance to put it a little more in perspective,” he said.

Hospitals such as St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor have been investing in programs ranging from yoga classes to personal coaches designed to help doctors become more resilient. But national burnout rates keep rising, with up to 54 percent of doctors affected.

Some leading healthcare executives now say the way medicine is practiced in the U.S. is to blame, fueled in part by growing clerical demands that have doctors spending two hours on the computer for every one hour they spend seeing patients.

What’s more, burnout is not just bad for doctors; it’s bad for patients and bad for business, according to interviews with more than 20 healthcare executives, doctors and burnout experts.

“This really isn’t just about exercise and getting enough sleep and having a life outside the hospital,” said Dr. Tait Shanafelt, Stanford Medicine’s first chief physician wellness officer in September.

“It has at least as much or more to do with the environment in which these folks are practicing,” he said.

Shanafelt and other researchers have shown that burnout erodes job performance, increases medical errors and leads doctors to leave a profession they once loved.

Hospitals can ill afford these added expenses in an era of tight margins, costly nursing shortages and uncertainty over the fate of the Affordable Care Act, which has put capital projects and payment reform efforts on hold.

“Burnout decreases productivity and increases errors. It’s a big deal,” said Cleveland Clinic Chief Executive Dr. Toby Cosgrove, one of 10 U.S. healthcare CEOs who earlier this year declared physician burnout a public health crisis.

Hospitals are just beginning to recognize the toll of burnout on their operations.

Experts estimate, for example, that it can cost more than a $1 million to recruit and train a replacement for a doctor who leaves because of burnout.

But no broad calculation of burnout costs exists, Shanafelt said. Stanford, Harvard Business School, Mayo and the American Medical Association are working on that. They have put together a comprehensive estimate of the costs of burnout at the organizational and societal level, which has been submitted to a journal for review.

In July, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) called on researchers to identify interventions that ease burnout. Meanwhile, some hospitals and health insurers are already trying to lighten the load. Studies have shown that burnout drives up rates of unnecessary testing, referrals to specialists and hospital admissions.

When doctors quit, it costs an estimated $800,000 to $1.3 million in recruitment, training and productivity costs, depending on the specialty.

Even when physicians don’t leave, they can contribute thousands of dollars in costs each year “just as a matter of inefficient functioning,” said Dr. Colin West of the Mayo Clinic.

The trend has medical malpractice experts concerned. CRICO, the malpractice carrier for Harvard University’s two dozen affiliated hospitals, recently had to settle a handful of cases because doctors were too burned out to fight, even though CRICO believed it could win.

“Working with doctors every day, you see it,” Harkaway said. “They are just beat down.”

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