Physician Health

When patients’ social needs are met, doctors feel less burnout

A foundational component of a highly functional health system is physician well-being. Yet more than 60% of primary care physicians in the U.S. report symptoms of burnout. However, when family doctors felt they were able to address the unmet social needs of their patients, they were less likely to report physician burnout, according to a study in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.   

Changing the Culture of Burnout

See how AMA members are changing the culture and stigma associated with physician burnout in the latest issue of AMA Moving Medicine.

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Committed to making physician burnout a thing of the past, the AMA has studied, and is currently addressing issues causing and fueling physician burnout—including time constraints, technology and regulations—to better understand and reduce the challenges physicians face. By focusing on factors causing burnout at the system-level, the AMA assesses an organization’s well-being and offers guidance and targeted solutions to support physician well-being and satisfaction.

The study, “Physician Burnout and Higher Clinic Capacity to Address Patients' Social Needs,” looked at a cross-sectional analysis of 1,298 family physicians in ambulatory primary care settings. Researchers tested  associations among physician and clinic characteristics, perceived clinic social needs capacity, and burnout.

Primary care physicians responded to a self-reported burnout survey. The validated, single-item question asked doctors to rate their level of burnout on a scale of one, “I enjoy my work. I have no symptoms of burnout,” to five, “I feel completely burned out. I am at the point where I may need to seek help.”

“Efforts to reduce primary care physician burnout may be furthered by addressing structural issues, such as improving capacity to respond to patients’ social needs in addition to targeting other modifiable burnout risks,” the authors wrote. 

Twenty-seven percent of family physicians reported burnout. However, “physicians with a high perception of their clinic’s ability to meet patients’ social needs were less likely to report burnout.” These physicians were more than two times likelier to have a social worker and more than 1.5 times as likely to have a pharmacist on the care team.

These practice-level factors associated with clinic capacity to address patients’ social needs helped reduce physician burnout symptoms.

Social worker. Those who felt they could successfully meet their patients’ social needs had lower rates of burnout. Because of this, it was not “surprising that physicians who reported having a social worker on staff would report higher capacity to assist patients with social needs,” the authors said. Social workers help to address the social determinants of health that impact a wide range of health, functioning and quality of life outcomes. 

Pharmacist. In practice, a pharmacist can be instrumental in care coordination, medication refills and reconciliations, and patient education. These can all be challenging for patients with social complexity. Pharmacists can also help to free up time for busy physicians or other staff to directly attend to patients’ social needs. 

Related Coverage

Add a pharmacist to the team to see better outcomes

The AMA’s STEPS Forward™ open-access modules offer innovative strategies that allow physicians and their staff to thrive in the new health care environment. These courses can help you prevent physician burnout, create the organizational foundation for joy in medicine, create a strong team culture and improve practice efficiency. One CME module specifically addresses embedding a pharmacist.

STEPS Forward is part of the AMA Ed Hub™, an online platform that brings together all the high-quality CME, maintenance of certification, and educational content you need—in one place—with activities relevant to you, automated credit tracking and reporting for some states and specialty boards.

Patient-centered medical home (PCMH). Through PCMH, which is a team-based health care delivery model, provides comprehensive and continuous medical care to patients. This model of care helps patients obtain improved health outcomes through increased access to health care, patient-centered care, and shared-decision making.

There is also an association between PCMH status and a clinic’s capacity to address social determinants of health. This is consistent with PCMH criteria, which recognizes practices or organizations that offer community resources and linkages to assist patients with social needs.