Upset female doctor with hand on her head is comforted by another female doctor who is hugging her colleague.

Using Our Eyes and Ears: How Leaders Can Listen to Physicians to Help Detect Burnout

In late June 1863, General J.E.B. Stuart and his calvary became separated from General Lee’s army by moving around Union forces to the east while Lee advanced to the west. This separation severely hindered Confederate forces for the first two days of the battle, as they were often operating without sufficient information and intelligence. When Stuart finally arrived at headquarters on July 2nd, legend has it that Lee said to him “General Stuart, where have you been? I have not heard a word from you for days, and you are the eyes and ears of my army.”

Today, healthcare organizations are in a battle with physician burnout. The casualties of this war are our physicians and their patients. Physicians are suffering from shattered lives, injured families, depression and even suicide. Early retirements, career change and high turnover plague their practices. Patients experience lower satisfaction, higher error rates and a lack of needed empathy from their doctor. The cost of losing this war is in the millions of dollars.

Like a group of officers planning battle, healthcare leaders propose a myriad of causes and solutions to the situation. Leaders cite many different causes such as electronic health records, office staffing, lack of community and generational issues. Wellness coordinators are hired and  committees are formed, yet little progress is made. Like General Lee, we are flying blind because we are not using the eyes and ears of our organizations; our physicians.

Failing to listen leads to missed opportunities to detect burnout

Annually, or sometimes twice a year, our doctors get surveys designed to measure whether they are burned out. Each time, it’s the same survey, same questions, and often they aren’t even told what the survey results reveal. We form committees comprised of physicians who are the best organizational players, because those experiencing burnout don’t have the energy to serve.

We miss the chance to get meaningful feedback from the body of our physicians, our eyes and ears, who know the issues better than leadership ever will. Getting this comprehensive feedback becomes even more challenging as consolidation of healthcare organizations creates scale and geography inhibiting one-on-one conversations between system leadership and physicians.

Physician burnout banner graphic that reads, "Feeling burned out? Sign up for tools and resources to stop burnout."

Lack of physician training leads to failure in addressing burnout

Consider also who is more likely to detect a physician who is struggling with early signs of burnout? Is it a colleague, or the medical director in administration? Obviously, the answer is the colleague. Yet historical norms of autonomy, professional protocol, and discomfort with the issue inhibit dialogue between doctors on such a topic. The reality is that most doctors still feel uncomfortable approaching this with their peers, despite the fact that they could be the key to early intervention and change.

How are you approaching the dilemma of burnout?

To best utilize the “eyes and ears” of your organizations, leaders need to ask themselves three significant questions about their approach to the dilemma of physician burnout.

  1. Do I have a structure for feedback from my doctors that goes beyond measuring burnout to create rich, iterative opportunities for meaningful feedback from the breadth of the physician base?
  2. Am I sharing that feedback with the physicians in a way that stimulates conversation with them about the results?
  3. Am I equipping physicians with knowledge and understanding of burnout as well as skills that not only allow them to care for themselves but for each other?

Burnout is a complex, multifactorial issue which has arisen over time and will take years of effort by healthcare organizations to overcome. There is no single magic bullet.  We only fool ourselves as leaders when we believe we can prevent and manage this issue without our physicians. Our army (leadership) cannot be on one side of the enemy while our calvary (physicians) are on the other. At Gettysburg, they came together at headquarters too late to prevent defeat. We must bring programs to bear now which initiate conversation, train physicians and management, and reconnect our leaders with their “eyes and ears” to create meaningful change.

Find out how the SE Healthcare Physician Burnout Prevention® Program provides an active listening tool for leadership. The program also offers sequential video training program with additional educational content including audios and recommended readings. The program provides targeted, tactical methods to improve efficiency, communication, work-life balance, workflow, leadership skills and reduce stress. Collectively, this content is a physician burnout prevention program – a curriculum of sequential instruction.

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Categories : Blog

About Author

Kevin Mosser

    Kevin H. Mosser, MD, is a seasoned health system executive with experience in all facets of quality and operations performance including physician practice management, organizational integrity, quality improvement, culture development, and fiscal discipline. Most recently, Dr. Mosser served as the president and chief executive officer of WellSpan Health. WellSpan Health is an integrated health system of eight hospitals, more than 1,000 physicians, and over 200 ambulatory sites.

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