ASCs Have a Chance to Get Ahead of Physician Burnout
By David Howerton
David Howerton is CEO of Simplify ASC of Brentwood, TN.
Not long ago, two retired physicians gathered to reflect on their careers (an OB/GYN and an internist) from roughly 1965 to 2010. Both were in private practices they owned and later sold for a healthy profit. Their careers saw all the benefits of new, lifesaving drugs and medical procedures. The largely hierarchical workplaces they inhabited supported the “buck stops here” identity of the physician as having the final say in patient care. Paperwork was practically nonexistent. A prescription pad, a few notes in a patient’s file, and they were on their way to the next patient.
Both doctors agreed their retirement came at just the right time. While this golden era had its flaws — most notably high rates of medical error and social and racial disparities — the physician felt valued and supported. Today, the healthcare landscape is dramatically different. The headlines proclaim it, from trade media to news magazines, and from research university to family medical clinic: physician burnout is a thing. Harvard’s School of Public Health calls it a public health crisis.
According to Medscape’s 2018 report on “Physician Burnout and Depression,” more than half of the report’s 15,543 respondents, or 56%, cited “too many bureaucratic tasks (e.g. charting, paperwork)” as contributing to physician burnout.
The Annals of Family Medicine found that physicians spent more time working in the EMR than they did spending face-to-face time with patients. An emergency room doctor notes the average ER physician will make 4,000 mouse clicks in the course of a single shift.
To cope with all these stresses, half will exercise, 46% will talk with family members or close friends, and 42% will try to get some sleep, according to the Medscape survey. The Harvard School of Public Health report recognized the positive impacts of these wellness-driven solutions, as well as recommending improved physician access to mental health treatment. Others advocate for the appointment of a chief wellness officer to focus C-suite attention on the remedy.
But the research clearly points to the elephant in the room. Charting and other bureaucratic tasks remain the biggest driver of physician burnout.
Adding to the tension: over 30% of physicians are older than 60 years and began practicing medicine well before computers elbowed their way into healthcare. The story is the same for perioperative nurses: 66% are over 50 years old and 20% of that group are over 60. These digital immigrants, while conversant in digital “language,” aren’t always fluent, and the transition raises stress levels.
While no one is advocating a return to a paper-based system, current technology needs a serious overhaul. Rather than conform to way they practice medicine, clunky, off-the-shelf software leaves physicians at the mercy of the way the software wants them to treat patients.
While ASCs have, for now, been spared from the same burdensome EMR certification requirements as hospitals and health systems, they haven’t been spared from digital tools that leave the average user wishing for something more relevant to their ASC experience in the OR, supply closet or at the front desk.
Now is the time to develop digital tools that respect the time and talents of every clinician and work the way they do. As ASC volumes increase and compliance standards climb, those who work to help ASCs navigate technology transformation have a chance to get it right. But they should be mindful of the words from self-described tech humanist Kate O’Neill: “The meaningful design of experiences in physical space now regularly overlaps with the meaningful design of experiences in digital space.”