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MANAGING THE OFFICE

How to help your physicians cope with stress and burnout

Studies find physician stress is significant, and that external stressors play a major role in physician burnout.

Because physician stress and burnout have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of a medical practice, it’s important to understand the situation – and know what you can do about it.

First, the facts

A 2013 survey conducted by Medscape, part of the WebMD Health Professional Network, finds that nearly 40 percent of physicians have reported experiencing at least one symptom of burnout: loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.

In releasing its survey findings, Medscape points out that a national survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 finds U.S. physicians suffer more burnout than other American workers.

The factors contributing to stress and burnout, according to the Medscape survey, include too many bureaucratic tasks, too many hours at work, feeling like a cog in the wheel, and impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Another survey, this one conducted by Cejka Research, a physician and allied health and healthcare executive search firm, also looks at physician stress and burnout. It finds that a physician’s desire to leave his or her practice or medicine entirely is one of the most frequently mentioned impacts of stress and/or burnout.

With leaving the job as a possible solution, the situation has the potential to become dire.

Far-reaching consequences

The United States is already facing a physician shortage, according to research conducted by Merritt Hawkins, a leading permanent physician search and consulting firm. This shortage is currently being addressed in part by locum tenens doctors (temporary physicians), who are employees as opposed to practice owners.

However, Kurt Mosley, VP of Merritt Hawkins and Staff Care, says this is not a long-term solution because it may lead to “a drop in physician productivity as employed doctors tend to work fewer hours than independent practice owners.”

Plus, there are obvious implications for patients and staff when a physician leaves the practice and a new physician, especially a temporary one, takes his or her place.

Since stress is a major reason physicians leave a practice, isn’t it far better to address the issue before it escalates?

Providing assistance

Stress affects a physician’s health, wellbeing, and professional and personal life; and stress affects a physician’s relationships, which means it affects the entire staff and has the potential to affect patients.

So, what can you, as the medical office manager, do?

Be alert to stress symptoms, including common mood and behavior changes.

According to Mayo Clinic, mood changes may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression

Mayo Clinic indicates behavior changes may include:

  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal

If a physician at your practice seems affected by stress, do your best to mitigate stressors.

For example:

  • Make sure the office runs smoothly
  • Eliminate bureaucracy where you can
  • Don’t allow employee conflicts to escalate
  • Handle disruptive patients whenever possible
  • Address patient scheduling issues
  • Manage mandated operational changes
  • Take the initiative with regard to technology

In other words, try to free the physician to do what he or she wants to do and does best: practice medicine.

An overwhelming 80 percent of physicians cite “patient relationships” as the No. 1 “most satisfying part of the their job,” according to a 2012 national survey of 13,575 practicing physicians, one of the largest physician surveys ever undertaken in the U.S., commissioned by The Physicians Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance the work of practicing physicians and help facilitate the delivery of healthcare to patients.

If you have a comfortable relationship with the physician, you may want to also talk with him or her about the situation. Express your concern and ask if there is anything you can do to make his or her job easier. If your approach is tactful and you are sincere, chances are the offer will be appreciated.

Physician stress can ultimately derail the success of the practice. Therefore, helping to alleviate it is not only a kind and considerate thing to do for your physician coworker; it’s a smart business decision.

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