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Electronic Health Records and Physician Burnout: Fraught with Frustrations

Electronic Health Records (EHRs) have become a scapegoat for physician burnout. A quick google search of “EHR” and “burnout” will yield nearly 350,000 results. Systematic reviews over the last 10 to 15 years look at much of this data and draw a similar conclusion; higher physician burnout rates are correlated to use of EHRs. They point at increased documentation times, decreased user satisfaction, and “clerical burden” as causes of burnout. Data from other sources suggest we may be laying the blame in the wrong place.

At Stanford Children’s Health, in an effort to improve physician satisfaction with EHR use, they have created extensive and personalized education programs. They obtained data from the EHR to develop an efficiency profile, surveyed physicians on their perspective of their efficiency, and performed observation sessions with physicians so support staff could see how physicians used the EHR. With this information, personalized learning plans were developed. Providers were incentivized to participate and they found physician satisfaction with EHR improved as well as their efficiency and less time spent on medical records outside of the hospital.

This suggest that the problem with the EHR is not of the EHR, but rather the onboarding and training process related to it. Most EHRs can be made to work for you, rather than against you, and improve your efficiency with documentation and patient care.

Physician Burnout in the Electronic Health Record Era: Are We Ignoring the Real Cause? Annals of Internal Medicine. July 2018.

Drs. Downing and Bates recently published in JAMA that there may be another underlying cause that is driving physician burnout and dissatisfaction which is being blamed on the EHR. In looking at health systems across the United States and abroad on a similar EHR (Epic Systems), they found that physicians abroad reported higher satisfaction with the EHR and that it improved their efficiency. In other countries, they noted, documentation is briefer, containing only essential clinical information rather than bogged down by compliance and reimbursement documentation. On average, within the same EHR, notes in the United States were found to be four times longer than those abroad. Notes in the United States had documentation requirements from a “clinically irrelevant” number of elements in each part of a note so that fee-for-service components are fulfilled.

Their argument suggest that a key cause of physician burnout which is being blamed on EHRs is actually our “outdated regulatory requirements.” With reform of these requirements, documentation would become only the essential clinical data, rather than notes with strict documentation requirements of a “clinically irrelevant number of elements” in the various components of a note.

A third argument that I would challenge us to consider as a more likely cause of physician burnout rather than the EHR is the cultural state of medicine in the United States. Due to increasing numbers of lawsuits over the last 20 years, physicians are spending a lot of time on “CYA” medicine (Cover Your A**), feeling forced to order unnecessary testing for an unlikely diagnosis “just in case” things do not go according to planned. We also get pulled into the trap of what I refer to as “Burger King” medicine, playing off the fast food giant’s slogan of “Have it your way.” Patients are coming to the physician already “knowing” their diagnosis and requesting specific treatments or testing. If the physician disagrees? No problem, the patient will just go find one down the road who will do what they want.

In an era of electronic health records on the rise and an increase in rates of physician burnout in the United States, it looks easy on paper to show a correlation between the two. What if instead the EHR is not to blame, but any number of other things like lack of physician EHR training and support, documentation regulations, or “Burger King” medicine? Is it more likely that the relationship between EHR prevalence and physician burnout is only a correlation and not a causal relationship? My hope is that in the coming years we will recognize the EHR as a tool to improve patient care and outcomes, increase our efficiency, and return to practicing medicine at the bedside.

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