By Dr. Christopher Maiona
Healthcare providers, like their COVID-19 patients, are human beings, and the pandemic has taken a physical and emotional toll on them.
In a recent survey, physicians were asked if COVID-19 has changed their employment plans and, if yes, which options they’re considering. An overwhelming 54% said they plan to make an employment change, with 36% of those opting for early retirement or leaving the practice of medicine altogether. Another 50% of those who said yes plan to leave their current employer for another.
So, turnover is coming and the impact could be significant. The American Association of Medical Colleges predicts there could be a shortage of nearly 140,000 physicians in the U.S. by 2033. A major contributor is physician burnout, which stems in large part from outdated approaches to organization, regulation, and technology.
Physicians’ years of medical school and hands-on training aren’t truly put into practice until a connection is forged with a patient. Quality healthcare is driven not just by a provider’s wealth of knowledge or sense of responsibility, but by passion. Physician burnout gradually erodes that passion and, even before the pandemic, was driving professionals of all ages out of medicine.
However, where some are finding their passion has faded, for others it was born or rekindled during the pandemic. In late 2020, an AAMC analysis found nearly two dozen medical schools saw a 25% increase in applications from 2019 to 2020 – what has been called “the Fauci effect”. For some, the pandemic exposed areas where healthcare is in need of reform, driving many young applicants to studies of public health.
Bridging the digital divide
For providers to be able to put their expertise to work, they need the tools and support to do so effectively. The first wave of EHR technology brought patient data into the digital realm, but was focused on the moving pieces -- not the people behind them. Optimized EHRs must keep physicians and patients front and center, so IT becomes an asset rather than a burden.
Here are three ways health IT can combat burnout and alleviate the pressure in the wake of the pandemic:
IT optimized for the physician
ー Technology hardly seemed personal until it became the primary means of connection between clinicians and patients during the pandemic. Now personalization needs to be brought to each individual provider and their EHR user experience. That means delivering a more intuitive approach to reviewing patient data or entering orders when and how it’s convenient for the user, based on their specialty, the patient state, and other variables. IT should also automate administrative tasks, such as entering notes and charges.
Telehealth and going mobile
ー The pandemic established telehealth as a widely-accepted platform for healthcare delivery and acclimated patients to the process as a matter of necessity. As demand for telehealth grows, and healthcare moves beyond the four walls of a hospital, mobile capabilities become an essential tool for a physician’s everyday life. Mobile solutions match a modern physician’s workflow by being more accessible and more flexible. A native mobile app is a logical and inevitable extension of the EHR system, and an obvious way to enable both better patient care and care team coordination.
Adapting to a new normal
– It’s easy to say 2020 was a “different” or “unusual” year. What is not yet clear is how much has permanently changed. No one can definitively say what the so-called “new normal” will be. However, IT must help providers adapt to whatever “new normal” emerges. More useful IT, optimized for and supportive of clinicians’ patient care needs, will be an inherent characteristic of the healthcare provider environment going forward, like remote-monitoring devices and related software that sits between patient and provider.
This is ongoing and iterative, but that makes the eventual change no less inevitable. When the EHR was introduced, it aimed to create a digital mirror of a paper records system. Today, health IT aims instead to mirror the user and create a digital path for their ideal workflow. It’s the same mentality embraced by tech companies around the world and across many industries that are finding ways to meet users where they are and serve their needs directly.
The pandemic has placed a heavy burden on physicians, and the ultimate toll on healthcare providers is still unknown. What is clear is that the importance of healthcare IT that truly supports clinical workflow – anytime, anywhere – is now more widely appreciated and, with the advent of practical artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud platforms, is coming. Technology, which once contributed to physician burnout, can now be a key strategy to combat the burnout epidemic.
About the author: Christopher Maiona, MD, SFHM, is chief medical officer at PatientKeeper, Inc., a provider of EHR optimization solutions, based in Waltham, MA.