It's not just doctors and nurses reporting burnout. Support staff are feeling stressed. Here's why

The vast majority of front-line clinical support staff are reporting moderate to extreme burnout, and nearly two-thirds have considered quitting, a new survey found.

"While much has been reported on doctor and nurse burnout, less attention has been paid to the front-line clinical support staff who have been working tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure high-quality patient care was maintained," Meg Aranow, senior vice president and platform evangelist for patient experience vendor Well Health, told Fierce Healthcare.

"We recognize the critical role clinical support staff play in provider organizations—this study further validates the cascading impact clinical support staff have on the patient experience and so many facets of our healthcare system," Aranow said.

Well Health surveyed 320 clinical support staff who are primarily responsible for communicating and coordinating with patients, mostly through phone calls, which can be time-consuming. According to the survey results, the patient-communication coordination process is overwhelming staff to the point of wanting to quit, with 82% saying that contacting and coordinating with patients about their appointments, follow-ups and health issues via phone, email, text or live chat is a direct cause of their burnout.

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Almost nine out of 10 staff members (88%) report moderate to extreme burnout, with half (56%) rating their burnout as “high” or “extreme.” 

A majority of respondents (63% ) report spending three or more hours each day communicating with patients and coordinating appointments as well as following up and handling prescriptions.

As the healthcare workforce continues to grapple with the physical and mental exhaustion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, attracting and retaining talent is a top priority for healthcare providers. However, clinical support staff is tasked with often cumbersome, repetitive work involved with patient coordination and communication.

And, the pandemic has added to their workloads, as they often have to coordinate COVID-19-related care on top of everyday operations, resulting in dangerous burnout and frustration for support staff that can spill over to patient care. 

The survey found that 58% of clinical support staff believe their burnout has negatively affected a patient’s quality of care, and 60% report poor or ineffective patient communication has negatively affected a patient’s health outcomes.

With increasing numbers of providers entering risk-sharing agreements with payers, patient experience and care quality have become key measures tied to reimbursement. 

"The study findings demonstrate that patient care quality is linked to how clinician support staff experience their job. The two go hand in hand,” said Guillaume de Zwirek, CEO and founder of Well Health, in a statement.

Digital patient communications technology can automate routine patient-communication tasks to help clinical support staff accurately and consistently manage routine patient inquiries, so they can then focus on high-touch patient interactions, according to Aranow.

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"This technology can unburden clinical support staff by reducing the volume of patient inquiries they are faced with and help eliminate some of the stress-inducing tasks—which can drive burnout."

The survey results reveal growing burnout among staff as the healthcare industry faces a well-documented labor crunch. New data from Premier indicate the labor crunch is fueling an average 8% increase in daily clinical labor costs for hospitals, translating to an additional $24 billion in nationwide annual spending on clinical labor.

Premier’s data also suggest hospital workers are working harder and, as a result, are more frequently at risk of illness or burnout.