Patient Care

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Future of Health

Caring for Our Own: Reducing Physician Burnout

To provide the best care, we need to ensure that our practitioners are at their best. Recent evidence suggests a significant rate of burnout among U.S. physicians – including those who work at Partners HealthCare. Marked by exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and negativity around their work, burnout was identified in Partners doctors through multiple surveys in 2017 and 2018 – mobilizing the system to address the trend.

In 2018, a task force led by Marcela del Carmen, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Massachusetts General Physicians Organization (MGPO); Jessica Dudley, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Brigham and Women’s Physicians Organization; Joseph Harrington, MD, Internal Medicine Specialist, Charles River Medical Associates; and Thomas Sequist, MD, Chief Quality and Safety Officer, Partners, implemented a cross-Partners strategy including multiple key initiatives. A grant program was created to test 33 wellness-promoting pilot programs. These spanned several areas, from the creation of affinity groups such as a female surgeon dinner club, to an exercise buddy program to encourage physical fitness, to “scribes” for charting tasks at the point of care, and a central call service to alleviate on-call duties.

Additionally, a Partners eCare pilot program was developed to optimize physicians’ use of the electronic health record, shown by the survey to be one perceived driver of burnout. The program included at-the-elbow support from Partners eCare experts providing real-time guidance on efficient system use.

Drop-in pet therapy sessions are one pilot program tested at Brigham and Women's Hospital as part of cross-Partners physician wellness initiatives

The strategy enabled the rapid collection of data on the pilots’ effectiveness, as they rolled out across physician organizations at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and North Shore Medical Center. Ideas were shared broadly at a Physician Wellness Symposium hosted by Partners in September 2018. “The power of Partners is that we have economies of scale – we can test a number of ideas at once,” notes Diane O’Connor, Corporate Director, Partners Quality and Safety. “Once we find what works, we can replicate it across the entire system.”

One successful pilot, at-the-elbow support for Partners eCare, is now expanding through virtual means to reach a greater number of Partners physicians at their own convenience. “The investment in at-the-elbow support for primary care providers has had a very meaningful, positive impact on our work-life balance. The program was tailor-made, providing concrete recommendations that made an immediate difference,” elaborated Blair Fosburgh, MD, Primary Care Physician, MGPO.

Given the success of the first grant program, additional grant-funded pilots will be tested and measured. “This topic is so highly relevant across the country, and Partners is giving our physicians a voice – we’re saying we, too, have burnout, but we’ve seen such an impact with these initiatives,” concludes O’Connor.