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A major part of my consulting practice involves trying to help physicians become more proficient EHR users. As I evaluate their current state workflows, I usually discover a number of operational processes in their practices that are adding to their workload. Often the perception is that the EHR is causing more work when it’s really a combination of poor EHR implementation, poor EHR configuration, and continuing to try to use processes that were designed for paper even though the paper is long gone.
Increasing practice-related stresses contribute to physicians feeling like they’ve lost control of their work lives, which can ultimately result in burnout. I’m always on the lookout for strategies to help my clients beyond optimizing their EHRs and their office processes. Sometimes this involves referring them for executive coaching to discuss work-life balance and their willingness (or lack thereof) to alter their work schedules to try to reduce stress. Other times, physicians are resistant to any advice that advocates for work habits different than what they’ve grown to accept.
I ran across an article from the AMA this week that advertised four approaches to reduce the mental workload that physicians face. This was presented as a strategy for reducing burnout. Cognitive workload is a real phenomenon that a lot of organizations don’t think about. I’ve had many conversations with EHR designers and UX experts about it over the years, and certainly systems can be designed in a way to make things easier on the user. However, what users see on the screen is only a small part of the stressors they face each day.
The article cites a recent webinar with Elizabeth Harry, MD, who is senior director of clinical affairs at the University of Colorado Hospital. The first point that the article makes is that an individual’s attention is a limited resource, and that we need to “have space to actually give proper attention to things” in order to avoid making mistakes. She suggests that people use a task-based approach, where they focus on a single task for a period of time in order to saturate their working memory. An ideal time for focused attention would be 25 minutes, followed by a break during which the cognitive load would be discharged.
That sounds well and good from an academic perspective, but I’m not sure how to apply it to the typical workflow physicians face in the outpatient setting, where they’re bouncing from 10- to 15-minute visits with “breaks” in between, during when they are expected to finish documentation, field telephone messages, address medication refills, and perform numerous other tasks.
Dr. Harry goes on to suggest four strategies to address systems issues that contribute to burnout.
The first strategy is to increase standardization. She cites Steve Jobs and his standardized wardrobe as an example. She notes that building intentional habits can reduce stress and that organizations should try to standardize as much as possible across medical care unites.
I wholeheartedly agree with this idea. My urgent care employer has more than 30 locations, and all of them are built on the same blueprints except for three locations. I work at two of the three non-standard sites from time to time and find them incredibly frustrating. One site was acquired from another urgent care organization and has different cabinetry, so the drawers are laid out differently and the rooms have different configurations, which results in the physician opening random cabinets trying to find things. I’m sure that doesn’t build confidence for patients, and it definitely injects a small amount of stress into your day. The other site has the standard layout in the rooms, but the doors to the exam rooms all open opposite of how they should, resulting in some shimmying and dodging of trash cans and exam tables as you enter the room. It also makes you try to grab for a handle on the wrong side of the door as you exit, which just makes you feel foolish as well as slowing you down.
The second strategy she advocates is decreasing redundancy so that organizations have a single high-reliability process for completing a task rather than having multiple ways a process can run. She uses the example of notifying a physician regarding lab results. We need to receive results the same way each time rather than a different way each time we order labs. I think most organizations are doing a fairly good job with this, although there are some levels where redundancy is important, especially where critical patient safety situations are involved.
The third anti-burnout strategy involves consolidation of clinical data. This is where she cites EHR design as an example, setting up the workflow so that key information is located in a single space rather than requiring users to bounce around to find the information they need. Disease-specific workflows are an example of this, where users can find relevant patient history, clinical indicators, and labs all in the same place. This approach builds on the concept of reducing split attention as well as creating routines and habits.
The fourth strategy involves reducing interruptions. Dr. Harry notes that physicians need to have agreements with their support staff about what merits an interruption and what doesn’t. Interruptions can disrupt important thought processes, and she again advocates for physicians to have blocks of time where they can focus.
This may be a possibility for outpatient visits in certain subspecialties that are allowed longer appointments for complex consultations, and might be even more of a possibility where physicians own their own practices and can control their own schedules. However, I can’t see how it would be much of an option for specialties where physicians are expected to juggle multiple patients who are having acute problems simultaneously, such as in the emergency department or in the intensive care unit. In those settings, our attention is constantly drawn away from what we’re looking at and towards something that is potentially less stable or more serious.
The reality is that inability to focus doesn’t just lead to stress for physicians and caregivers, but it also leads to poor care when patients don’t have our complete attention. Having time to focus has become a luxury and our patients deserve better.
What are your organizations doing to help physicians achieve greater focus, and is it helping reduce burnout? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.