Widespread use of health IT can cause burnout but also help curb it

For clinicians, advances in technology can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, state-of-the-art IT tools make it easier for clinicians to reach patients and understand broader care patterns; while on the other, it has caused the lines between professional and personal to blur, resulting in high rates of burnout.

But even as it contributes to burnout, technology may also help to alleviate it, said panelists during a virtual session at HIMSS 21 Digital.

Expectations placed on clinicians have grown along with the acceleration of technology use. Today, work tends to follow clinicians home.

“The working hours are not the set working hours anymore,” said Isil Arican, director of ambulatory EHR services at Palo Alto, California-based Stanford Children’s Health, during the session. “Because we have all of these tools, we have emails, we have Slack and [Microsoft] Teams, and people message us and ask things at any time of the day…there is an issue with disconnecting.”

Not only that, but the amount of data clinicians are exposed to has increased exponentially, with the addition of resources like advanced data analytics tools and patient-generated data from wearables, she said.

This avalanche of information and expectations can leave clinicians feeling overwhelmed and burned out.

Burnout manifests in several different ways, from irritability to full-blown negativity. These feelings can result in clinicians leaving the medical profession and even discouraging their children or young students from considering medicine as a career.

“[Burnout is] narrowing the pool,” said Dr. Emily Oken, a professor in the population medicine department at Boston-based Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, during the discussion. “In many ways, there is a leaky pipeline.”

To combat this growing issue, health systems must truly understand what is and is not working with regard to clinicians’ workflow.

One way to do this is by using data to identify the major pain points, Stanford Children’s Health’s Arican said. Then, solutions can be implemented.

For example, when Stanford Children’s discovered that inbox management was a big contributor to clinician burnout, they created a multidisciplinary team to go through inboxes, complete some tasks electronically and route messages as needed. They also created tailored training for clinicians to help them with inbox management.

But as health systems are pinpointing drivers of burnout and working out ways to help, they must remember to be gentle in their approach.

“When you come to a clinician with data about them, it’s important to recognize that they are going to go through a grief process,” said Dr. Jenifer Lightdale, vice chair of the department of pediatrics at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. “They are absolutely going to be, first, in denial — then they will be very angry at you.”

This is why when data is presented, it should be coupled with the reminder that the health system is just trying to make the clinician’s work-life easier, she said.

Technology is an integral part of healthcare today, which means that clinicians cannot escape it. So, health systems must make sure technology is working for, and not against, clinicians.

“Without a doubt, [technology advancement has] been a blessing and curse,” Lightdale said. “We need to be super careful [about not] burning out our physicians as we try to continue to make our technologies better.”

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