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COVID-19 Intensifies Clinician Burnout from Health IT Burden

While clinician burnout from health IT use has long been an issue, COVID-19 ushered in higher rates of physician mental health concerns. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing issue of clinician burnout related to health IT use, according to a national survey from the Physicians Foundation.

Editor’s Note: The following article contains language about suicide.

The “2021 Survey of America’s Physicians, COVID-19 Impact Edition: A Year Later” found that the added stress of the pandemic resulted in greater clinician burnout.

Over six in ten (61 percent) of physicians experienced feelings of burnout during the pandemic, a significant jump from the 40 percent of reported physicians in 2018.

“Over the past year, the pandemic has shone a light on a problem that physicians have always faced: the stigma surrounding accessing mental health support and services for fear of looking weak or believing they will lose their license and credentials,” Gary Price, MD, president of The Physicians Foundation, said in a press release.

If left untreated, burnout can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use, depression, and anxiety. Ultimately, this can lead to suicidal ideations, directly affecting physician suicide rates.

However, just 14 percent of physicians who experienced burnout reported that they sought out medical attention for their mental health symptoms.

“Nearly one-fifth of physicians indicated they know of someone who considered, attempted, or died by suicide since the start of the pandemic alone, a time when many physicians have suffered trauma and loss,” Price said.

“It is vital that we make a conscious and forward effort to break down stigma and encourage physicians to seek mental health support when they need it, especially in the wake of the most significant health event in recent history,” he urged.

Physician suicide has been a public health crisis long before COVID-19. More than half (55 percent) of physicians reported that they have known a physician in their career who considered, attempted, or died by suicide.

Physicians also noted several other mental health challenges; 46 percent reported they withdrew or isolated themselves from others, and 34 percent cited feelings of hopelessness.

“Given the high levels of stress, burnout and physical and mental harm caused to physicians by COVID-19, it is clear that more must be done to foster and promote physician wellbeing, for the good of the public and for physicians themselves,” noted Robert Seligson, CEO of The Physicians Foundation.

“We need to shift the paradigm from a system where it is taboo to be open about managing burnout, depression or suicidal thoughts to one where we have a plan in place to embrace and access mental health care options without consequence,” Seligson continued.

Notably, female physicians (69 percent) were 12 percent more likely to report frequent feelings of burnout compared male physicians (57 percent).

Younger physicians (64 percent) were also 5 percentage points more likely to report feeling frequently burned out compared to older physicians (59 percent).

Additionally, physicians who worked for hospitals or health systems experienced burnout more frequently (64 percent) when compared to independent physicians (56 percent).

While the survey reveals the negative effects of COVID-19 on physicians’ wellbeing, the findings also highlight the vital role of support systems; 89 percent of physicians cite their family as essential in supporting their wellbeing, followed by friends (82 percent) and colleagues (71 percent).

More than half (53 percent) of physicians also noted that their medical practice or group has been helpful in supporting their mental health and wellbeing.

Most physicians (70 percent) indicated that a multi-pronged approach needs to be taken to address mental health conditions, burnout and/or suicide prevention. Such an approach would include confidential therapy, counseling or a support phone line, peer-to-peer support groups, and evidence-based professional training to prevent burnout, behavioral health conditions, and suicide.

“The data reveals physicians want real, systematic change to how the field of medicine handles burnout and behavioral health conditions,” Price concluded.

A multi-faceted approach to mitigating clinician burnout may also include EHR optimizations to streamline health IT processes, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA).

“Interventions designed to optimize technologies, training, and workflows may shift physician burnout to resilience,” the study authors noted. “Factors that contribute significantly to the burden of the digital environment in healthcare include clinical specialty, practice setting, requirements for compliance and reimbursement, and how physicians spend their time.”

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