Industry Voices—The pandemic intensified clinical burnout. Here's how we fix it

Physician burnout
Now more than ever, healthcare systems must implement strategies to address and support their workforce. (DigitalVision/Getty Images)

In 2019, the World Health Organization classified "burnout" as a disease and an occupational phenomenon. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through hospitals and care facilities like a Category 5 hurricane, exacerbating a longstanding industry problem that often gets overlooked.

Profound exposure to the trauma of the pandemic has left providers and care teams at risk of higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance use disorder than ever before. In fact, the pandemic has drained morale, caused 20% of physicians to report their first experience of burnout, and pushed professionals out of the industry altogether.

By 2025, PSNet predicts a shortage of up to 90,000 physicians with the pandemic and rising student loans deterring students away from the field.

In recent years, inefficient operations and technologies have only made things worse. A dependency on outdated EHRs and a lack of integrated care teams have left providers spending too much time with cumbersome IT systems and less with patients. Combine this with a disjointed approach to properly treating mental health disorders, and the country may be on the brink of its greatest health crisis yet, with a healthcare system underprepared and understaffed to address it.

The precipitous—and costly—nature of burnout has left care teams disengaged, with patient care suffering as a dangerous byproduct. Now more than ever, healthcare systems must implement strategies to address and support their workforce.

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Because, as we too often forget, clinical professionals are patients, too. Improving care team wellness requires an understanding of these root causes and mitigating interventions to address the symptoms of burnout. Our clinical allies need the best resources and strategies to stem the tide of talented medical professionals leaving the industry. No longer can we rely upon patchwork solutions or solutions that don’t get adopted.

Digital behavioral health tools have unique capabilities to address the multitude of factors contributing to provider and care team burnout on both the care delivery and personal wellness fronts. Comprehensive solutions can enable population-focused behavioral health integration at scale, linking the patient, their medical providers and behavioral health care managers to create a system for shared clinical decision-making. 

Moreover, stigma and fear of professional consequences persist as a barrier for health professionals accessing treatment and services themselves. Digital health solutions that enhance care team resiliency and emotional health are a necessary intervention to develop and enhance wellness and mindfulness skills. Empowering care teams with technology-enabled and mobile-friendly solutions ensures anonymity while eliminating the barriers to support. The result is care team members who have a renewed sense of control while developing the skills to ensure long-term wellness.  

By deploying appropriate technologies, healthcare organizations can proactively address the mounting dilemma of a minimized workforce and healthcare system that will continue to be overwhelmed. A multifaceted approach that targets both care providers and patients can support holistic organizational wellness, improve patient-centered care and get healthcare organizations back on track.

Addressing systemic burnout starts with universal understanding of the overwhelming impact on individuals and systems as well as both a time and financial commitment from healthcare executives and policymakers willing to make changes. As we shift the pandemic into our rearview mirror, let’s use this opportunity to supply the medical community with everything they need to recover, replenish and revive.

Amanda Brooks is a licensed clinical social worker, certified alcohol and drug counselor, and consultant for NeuroFlow.