Battling physician burnout delivers financial benefits for health care organizations


The financial impact of physician burnout can provide a guide to help organizations address the problem, according to a special communication published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Approximately half of U.S. physicians experience some degree of professional burnout, but health care organizations have done little to respond, wrote Tait Shanafelt, MD, of Stanford (Calif.) University, and colleagues (JAMA Intern Med. 2017 Sep 25. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.4340 ).

The researchers cited “a lack of awareness regarding the economic costs of physician burnout” and a lack of confidence that anything can be done as key factors in why the organizational response to burnout has been so limited.

The business end of physician burnout includes the costs associated with physician turnover and decreased productivity, as well as “financial risks to the organization’s long-term viability due to the relationship between burnout and lower quality of care, decreased patient satisfaction, and problems with patient safety,” the researchers said.

Organizations can combat physician burnout, the authors noted, and the effort is financially worthwhile, as well as morally and ethically important. “Burnout is primarily a system-level problem driven by excess job demands and inadequate resources and support, not an individual problem triggered by personal limitations,” they wrote.

The researchers developed a model outlining “Typical Steps in an Organization’s Journey Toward Expertise in Physician Well-being.” The steps begin with strategies that have a minor impact, including awareness of the problem of physician burnout and a focus on individual interventions such as mindfulness training, exercise, and nutrition.

However, the “transformative” changes in an organization include developing a “culture of wellness,” strategic investment in physician well-being, the presence of a “chief well-being officer” at the executive level, and accountability for physician wellness shared among organizational leaders.

The cost of such strategies varies among institutions, and the researchers provided worksheets to calculate the organizational cost of burnout and the return on investment if intervention steps are taken.

For example, an organization employing 450 physicians could potentially spend $1 million per year on an intervention to reduce physician burnout from 50% to 40%. The intervention investment could yield organizational cost savings of $1.125 million per year, with a 12.5% return on investment, as well as the potential financial benefits of improved patient satisfaction and quality of care.

“Understanding the business case to reduce burnout and promote engagement, as well as overcoming the misperception that nothing meaningful can be done, are key steps for organizations to begin to take action,” the researchers concluded.

“Improvement is possible, investment is justified, and return on investment measurable,” they said.

Dr. Shanafelt is a coinventor of the Physician Well-Being Index, Medical Student Well-Being Index, and Well-Being Index; copyright and licensing rights for these tools belong to the Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Shanafelt receives part of the royalties. The researchers had no other financial conflicts to disclose.


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