While we’re in awe of the work physicians do, they’re like other professionals in stressful occupations—they can easily suffer from burnout. Physician burnout is a significant problem, and not just for healthcare organizations; it affects the quality of care and can lead to doctors suffering from depression.
There’s actually a way physicians can avoid burnout: through telehealth. Telehealth services reduce physician burnout in seven ways.
Physician burnout: a problem with serious consequences
The term “physician burnout” means that a doctor lacks:
- Physical energy
- Emotional energy (being emotionally available for family, friends, patients, and staff members)
- Spiritual energy (a clear sense of purpose)
There are a number of causes of physician burnout—it can take place over the course of a career, it could be brought on by a traumatic event, or it could be the physician’s individual situation (dealing with difficult patients and coworkers, for example). Yet, regardless of the cause of physician burnout, the effects can be devastating.
Physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession, losing 300–400 colleagues each year. Depression and stress compound the problem—they lead to a higher rate of errors and a lower quality of care. In turn, the healthcare industry loses $4.6 billion in costs each year.
How telehealth reduces physician burnout
Telehealth services lower the risk of physician burnout in the following ways:
- Improving work-life balance
- Optimizing schedules
- Reducing commutes
- Better patient experience
- Better doctor-patient relationship
- Addressing coverage gaps
- Increasing support for physicians
Improving work-life balance
One of the benefits of telehealth services is that they improve physicians’ work-life balance. Telehealth services allow physicians to work from home or the office.
This isn’t anecdotal—research bears this out. A 2015 study showed that 79% of physicians wanted to offer telehealth services because it would improve their work-life balance.
Another way in which telehealth services can reduce physician burnout is by allowing doctors to optimize their schedules. A telehealth visit might be shorter than an in-person visit, yet could be just as effective.
Dr. Michelle Alencar, a researcher, professor, and entrepreneur, noted in a June 2020 interview that a telehealth visit could be as short as eight minutes, while an in-person visit could be 15 to 20 minutes. Shorter appointments mean physicians feel less pressured to push through their schedules, and patients feel as though the appointment is more efficient.
Some doctors are fortunate enough to live close enough to their clinics, while others face long commutes on a daily basis. Those long commutes can lead to physician burnout—traveling to and from work every day, especially when working a difficult job, can wear someone down.
A case study from February 2020 illustrates how telehealth eliminated one physician’s commute. Dr. Scott Jensen, a family physician in Arizona, faced a six-hour round-trip commute. While he was committed to his practice, he also wanted to spend more time with his wife and children.
Adopting a telehealth solution eliminated an Arizona physician’s six-hour round-trip commute.
Adopting a telehealth solution allowed Dr. Jensen to do just that. He was able to see his patients through video conferencing while working from the comfort of his own home.
Better patient experience
It might seem as though the patient experience and physician burnout are unrelated topics. Yet, they’re connected. A September 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed physician burnout leads to:
- A higher likelihood of safety incidents
- A lower adherence to treatment plans
- Less-safe patient care
Because telehealth decreases physicians’ stress by improving work-life balance, optimizing schedules, and reducing commutes, physicians feel more relaxed when they deliver telehealth services. They’re more focused on patients, which results in a better patient experience.
Better doctor-patient relationship
This will also sound counterintuitive: telehealth reduces patient burnout by enhancing the doctor-patient relationship. How is that possible?
In a 2019 study, 60% of doctors said they wanted to use telehealth services because they believed it would improve the doctor-patient experience. Doctors deliver better care when they’re not stressed about their schedules and their commutes.
Addressing coverage gaps
Though patients tend to see physicians as superheroes because they save lives, sometimes with scarce resources, doctors are human, too. And humans often need help when they’re overwhelmed. There are times when there isn’t enough coverage; perhaps a primary care physician in a clinic isn’t available, leaving the other primary care physician to pick up the slack.
Telehealth services help clinicians fill those coverage gaps. Research from 2015 demonstrated that when doctors used telehealth services, they were able to collaborate with colleagues so they could deliver care to patients despite absences within the clinic. Telehealth services enable physicians located remotely to treat patients, which reduces the burden on doctors on the verge of burnout.
Increasing support for physicians
The seventh way in which telehealth reduces physician burnout is by increasing support for doctors. Busy clinicians generally don’t have time to take care of their own physical or mental health needs. Utilizing telehealth services to help busy physicians lessens the risk and the negative effects of burnout.
In January 2020, the Providence Health network (based in Washington) launched the Telebehavioral Health Concierge Program for doctors. Within two days of signing up, doctors have a virtual visit with a counselor to discuss mental health issues. The founders of the program believe that it allows doctors to receive care on their terms, and to stamp out physician burnout before it becomes an issue.
Telehealth services help busy physicians address mental health needs to prevent burnout.
Physician burnout is a serious problem—it negatively affects the patient experience (as well as the level of care), and it leads to doctors becoming depressed and potentially suicidal. One way of addressing physician burnout is through telehealth services. Telehealth creates a better work-life balance, shorter commute times, and doctors can use it to get the mental health assistance they need.
Originally published Oct 19, 2020, updated Mar 17, 2021