Physician Health

Want to reduce burnout among physicians? Ask them how

Georgia Garvey , Contributing News Writer

When it comes to the critical question of how to alleviate the nation’s physician burnout epidemic, here is an approach that offers an intriguing answer: First, ask your doctors.

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With that in mind, Sarah Richards, MD, and Bethany Lowndes, PhD, created an AMA STEPS® Forward toolkit for organizations seeking to conduct a campaign to solicit feedback from physicians.

“We really developed this to make sure that every physician’s voice could be heard and to address the practical, daily issues and then prioritize those for that group,” said Dr. Richards, a practicing hospitalist and senior medical director for clinician experience at Nebraska Medicine.

This sort of listening campaign should be customizable and flexible, Dr. Richards said. The general idea is that during a meeting with physicians in the same group, a leader or facilitator will use written and verbal prompts to propel discussion about what’s going well and how their jobs can be improved.

Dr. Richards says the listening campaign differs from other methods of gaining feedback on physician burnout because it creates an easier way for doctors’ voices to be heard.

One-on-one discussions or group surveys can lead to an imbalance in participation, Dr. Richards said.

“Oftentimes, we were hearing from the same physician over and over, maybe the person that was more senior or felt more comfortable speaking up,” she said. Organizations may not hear as much from younger or midcareer physicians who may not “feel safe, for whatever reason, bringing up issues or concerns.”

The written component of a listening campaign makes it easier to anonymously offer negative feedback, she said. And the oral component focuses on positivity—the group successes—making it less stressful to chime in.  

“The listening session is structured in such a way to allow us to make sure everybody is heard,” said Dr. Richards, who also spoke about the power of listening campaigns to reduce burnout in an episode of the “AMA STEPS Forward Podcast.”

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Listening campaigns can be conducted through videoconferencing, in larger or smaller groups, and can be shortened in duration or the components included. A good way to engage physicians, Dr. Richards said, is to start with just one part of the campaign: asking each doctor to share one wish for something that would most improve their professional fulfillment. Then, the group rates each wish on a one-to-10 scale to produce a prioritized wish list for the group.

There is, though, one hard-and-fast rule to the listening campaign: Leaders must follow up.

Dr. Richards said a lack of leadership buy-in and follow up in a listening campaign—even if it’s just communicating what the barriers are to the concerns raised by physicians is essential.

“The last thing you want is for people to spend time to bring up these ideas, to go through this activity and then have it be kind of a one-and-done. If you never hear anything, that can actually be worse than not doing it at all,” she said. “If the physicians’ most popular wish is that everyone gets a scribe, that might just not be financially viable at that moment. But the leader needs to be committed to taking the time doing the research, looking into the why and the why not.”

AMA STEPS Forward open-access toolkits offer innovative strategies that allow physicians and their staff to thrive in the new health care environment. These resources can help you prevent physician burnout, create the organizational foundation for joy in medicine and improve practice efficiency. 

If you are a physician or health care organization leader interested in learning more about listening campaigns, you are welcome to email Dr. Richards.

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