I Feel Your Pain: Healthcare CEOs Recognize Physician Burnout

And other takeaways from the Becker’s Annual Hospital Conference

Doctors bearing the brunt of a chaotic system should take heart: Hospital CEOs recognize physician burnout is a chronic disease facing the industry, and they’re working to address it.

Physician burnout was one of the key topics to emerge at Becker’s Hospital Review’s 9th Annual Meeting held from April 11-14 in Chicago where 3000-plus healthcare leaders convened to share perspectives and advice. Leaders are also focused on new types of partnerships reshaping the industry, combating the opioid crisis that’s sweeping the nation and converting hospitals into conveners of care.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what we heard at the conference, which echoes what we’ve been hearing from our health system clients across the country.

Don’t call physician burnout “burnout.”

Novant Health CEO Carl Armato shared that his system launched a “Physician Resiliency” program – flipping the script from the negative connotation of burnout. As of now, thousands of doctors are involved in the program, and there’s a waiting list to get in. It seems to be working for the North Carolina-based system – Amato mentioned a letter he received from a physician’s wife that said, “Thank you for giving me back my husband.”

Our take: Names matter – so does empowering your audience. Wouldn’t you rather sign up for a program to cultivate resilience than one to deal with burnout?

Physician burnout impacts patient care.

Leaders don’t just need to address the problem for the benefit of their doctors. They need to decrease physician burnout because it directly impacts patient care, according to Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy. Following a decade of study, he said the two most impactful steps his team has taken at Mayo are to: 1) reconnect physicians with their peers by – among other things – paying for them to go out to dinner or lunch in groups at least once per-month, and 2) to train supervising or leading physicians in knowing the signs of burnout and how to address it with those they lead. Physician managers, Noseworthy said, are uniquely positioned to make an impact.

Our take: Physician burnout does not discriminate geographically or across specialties – it is pervasive in every health system across the country.  Removing the stigma and addressing it head on is an imperative. And, it’s not just physicians – nurses experience burnout at a similar rate.  Have a meaningful program, invest in leadership for it and bake it into your culture.

Some leaders are bearish on mega-mergers.

Several CEOs said it’s tough to see the rationale behind some mega-mergers between massive systems and  predicted a handful that are making headlines today will fall through. Intermountain CEO A. Marc Harrison offered that his system is taking an asset-light approach to growth, having just launched a “virtual hospital.” He said they will only consider acquiring additional hospitals if they offer an entirely new population to serve.

Our take: Scale matters, but reach matters more. Smart providers are investing in partnerships and technology that allow them to, creatively, serve more patients with more services.

Hospitals should be the conveners of healthcare.

To make a true impact, health systems need to partner with other players to tackle social determinants of health, said LifePoint Health CEO Bill Carpenter. Walking the talk, LifePoint has launched a Community Coalition initiative across its 70+-hospital system designed to improve health in areas the organization serves. So far, 30 are active, and Carpenter said, making a real impact.

Our take: We agree! Hospitals should be the conveners of healthcare in the communities they serve – it’s a role to embrace immediately, especially as the industry transforms around us.

Good plans fail when communicated poorly.

An effort to redistribute services at two rural hospitals 30 miles apart resulted in an unforeseen mess for Mayo, Noseworthy said. Although the decision was critical to maintaining quality of care for those communities, people ultimately felt abandoned and blindsided, and media pounced. That was certainly not the intent, and looking back, he observed, they regretted not involving the communities earlier and more transparently in the discussion.

Our take: Really appreciated this highly respected CEO’s vulnerability. Leaders make the right decisions everyday – ones that make clinical sense, operational sense, financial sense. But, if you miscalculate the people politics or mishandle communications, the consequences are high. Lay the groundwork early when embarking on major change and involve a cross-section of stakeholders along the way.

Providers are taking charge on cutting opioid prescriptions.

In fact, both Intermountain and Henry Ford have mandates to decrease opioid scrips by 40 percent in 2018. That’s the equivalent of reducing the number of opioids prescribed by 5 million and 3million pills, respectively.

Our take: [Insert applause.]

They’re also taking charge on making drugs.

After her panel, SSM Health CEO Laura Kaiser had a line of people waiting to talk to her about the provider-led generic drug company that SSM Health recently helped launch and now involves 700 hospitals. The upshot: It’s time for providers to take matters into their own hands on the exorbitant cost of pharmaceuticals.

Our take: This is leadership to truly lower the cost of healthcare. This work may be seen as out-of-the box for healthcare providers, but it’s all part of health systems establishing themselves as the right organizations to guide the evolution of the healthcare industry.

Anne Hancock Toomey