VA cuts what Secretary Shulkin calls 'excessive' email load to give doctors more time with patients

A stethoscope on a computer keyboard
An email reduction project is just one of "many initiatives" the VA will take to address clinician burnout and improve quality of care, says VA Secretary David J. Shulkin, M.D. (Getty/anyaberkut)

Doctors working at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities have gained an hour and a half per week to spend with patients rather than shuffling through email.

Hearing doctors’ complaints that they spend too much time on administrative tasks, the VA made changes to its so-called inbox notifications system, a messaging system intended to communicate important clinical information such as test results, referrals, medication refills or other high-priority messages. The trouble is, the system became bogged down with nonurgent, unimportant information, taking up doctors’ and other clinicians’ valuable time, according to a VA announcement.

The change will give the VA’s primary care physicians, in particular, more time to devote to patient care. “The public never sees the excessive amount of emails and alerts that take up a doctor’s time,” said VA Secretary David J. Shulkin, M.D.

“Some of it is necessary, but other emails do nothing to advance patient care and can, in fact, pose a major safety hazard because of lesser important emails. We want our doctors to have the right information they need to provide quality health care to veterans, and this is a step in the right direction.”

Doctors have often complained that they spend far too much time doing paperwork and administrative tasks, leaving them with less time to see patients, which is why they got into medicine in the first place. One study estimated that doctors spend two hours on administrative work for every hour they spend with patients. That time-consuming workload leads to physician fatigue and burnout and is a top frustration for doctors, including those at the VA, the department said.

To help solve the problem, a team, led by White House fellow Tina Shah, M.D., revamped the VA’s message system to decrease the volume of low-value junk email and trained clinicians how to optimally process the messages that come into their inbox.

Early results show the change has been a success. Clinicians are spending an average of an hour and half less on emails per week, leaving them with time for more meaningful work and quality time with patients.

VA doctors have lower burnout rates than those in the private sector, Shulkin said. The email project is just one of many initiatives underway for the VA to address clinician burnout and improve quality of care, he added.