Physician Burnout: Can Telemedicine Heal the Healers?

For the everyday patient, already unhappy with long wait times and scheduling challenges in today’s byzantine health universe, it can be incredibly frustrating for patients to finally be seen by a physician who seems distracted, or worse, appears disinterested in their unique health issues. It is a far more common perception than you might think. In a study of why people avoid going to the doctor, 39% of respondents cited such negative past experiences with physicians as a key factor in their decision.

You care about your patients and your work, but sometimes that’s not enough. If you’re so overworked that you have to go on autopilot just to make it through the day, you may be suffering from physician burnout. There are a number of reasons providers feel too stressed to effectively do their jobs, but among the most common are: A lack of control over how they use their time, a lack of autonomy in their work with patients, and feeling pressured to see as many patients per day as possible in order to maintain their organization’s profitability. As a result, medical doctors are twice as likely to report a poor work-life balance than people who work in other fields.

Taken together, these unfortunate factors can create an endless negative feedback loop between physicians and patients. Providers — unhappy with their work for all the reasons above and increasingly detached — go through only the routine motions with their patients, who then feel they’re getting substandard care. The ever important “teachable caring moment” is lost.

Such burnout goes beyond a negative impact on patients’ experience at your office, and can even adversely affect patient outcomes. If you’re still thinking about a prior patient or about how tired you are during an encounter, you’re not fully paying attention to what your present patient is telling you. A distracted provider is more likely to miss a key piece of history — information that could indicate a completely different health issue than the one that brought that patient into your office in the first place.

If you’re suffering from physician burnout, you are more likely to focus on your patients’ stated complaint, instead of asking the right open ended probing questions that may help determine whether those symptoms are caused by some other underlying issue. It goes without saying that those unasked questions can be the difference between identifying the root of a patient’s health problems and letting them go undetected. Make no mistake, patients can and do recognize a burned-out physician, and if they feel you’re indifferent to their concerns they’ll be less likely to schedule a follow-up with — even if their symptoms worsen. Physicians risk losing patients’ business, and patients risk losing priceless time before diagnosis and treatment.

Far from some excuse concocted by doctors to justify poor performance, physician burnout is a legitimate epidemic among medical providers. Overall, 42% of providers suffer from burnout, and 54% of physicians show at least one symptom of burnout — a 10% increase over just the last three years. That’s not just bad news for doctors, but for their patients as well. That’s why more and more providers are taking a new approach to avoiding burnout and improving their quality of care: Telemedicine.

Telemedicine is the use of modern technology — best known for video chat but also including phone calls and text messages — to administer clinical care without having to be in the same place as their patients. For people in rural or underserved areas who might otherwise not have access to healthcare, telemedicine can literally be a lifesaver. Even patients who live in large cities can benefit from telemedicine: The ability to have a virtual visit with a healthcare provider without having to, say, find a babysitter or take time off from work means patients’ health issues can be addressed before they become more serious. The result is earlier, more convenient and more cost-effective for all involved.

Another important benefit of telemedicine is lower costs for providers. In addition to the benefits of an additional chargeable service to your bottom line, the comparably lower overhead can mean higher overall quality of care; The more expenses you have as a provider, the more patients you have to see in order to cover them, which in turn often means less time spent with each patient. With more personalized control over telehealth encounters, a less hectic schedule helps ensure a more healthy work-life balance, allowing you to be at your best for every patient.

Of the unique benefits telemedicine offers, the most obvious is flexibility. The standard in-office practice model only allows a certain amount of time for each patient. This is ideal for routine or episodic care, but for patients with more complex health issues, you need time to better explore their history, research options and create an individualized treatment plan Telehealth allows that dynamic approach.

How many times has a patient presented with a laundry list of concerns about their health, while you only have a fifteen minute block of time in which to address them? How many follow-up appointments have you had to schedule because there simply wasn’t enough time to cover everything in one visit? And how many times have you left the office feeling guilty that you couldn’t do your best for each patient because you’re simply spread too thin? It shouldn’t be that way. With telemedicine, it doesn’t have to be.

Telemedicine allows providers to control how their time is used and gives you the freedom to work at the right pace for your patients and yourself. There’s less pressure to cover everything in a small window of time, since you don’t have to worry about the patient who’s been sitting in the waiting room for an hour. This, in turn, ensures that patients have the time and space to get a complete picture of their overall health and wellness.

The ability to work more closely with patients is one of the benefits of telemedicine, but there’s another that’s just as important: An opportunity to really see the result of your hard work. It’s easy for providers to lose sight of the role they play in a patient’s healthcare, especially when the next appointment is just around the corner. Sure, there’s nothing particularly glamorous about cholesterol tests, blood pressure readings or colonoscopy referrals, but working in the telemedicine space helps you once again see the whole picture. It’s a good reminder that you’re on the cutting edge of something larger than yourself.

You got into medicine to help others. But when you don’t even have the time to enjoy that feeling before the next patient comes into your office, a sense of hopelessness can set in, which eventually leads to burnout. Telemedicine providers have noted that making it easier for patients to schedule and attend appointments means less stress and fewer time constraints for the patient. The less stressed you are during patient interactions, the more likely your patients are to feel good about their visit. And studies have shown that positive patient experiences can improve patient outcomes in the long run.

The appeal of telemedicine isn’t just that it makes things easier (though it certainly can). Telemedicine is a unique and necessary new approach to healthcare that allows providers the freedom to administer the care that works best for both them and for their patients, and it gives patients greater flexibility in managing their health.

You shouldn’t have to choose between your own well-being and giving each and every one of your patients the care they deserve. Think about telemedicine — it may be able to help.

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