Last updated October 8, 2021
Prior to 2020, nearly half of physicians reported symptoms of burnout, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased this number. Addressing providers’ mental health concerns and promoting well-being is essential to maintaining provider engagement, but this has also become more difficult due to the pandemic’s effects. Here is what several health systems across the country are doing to reduce clinician burnout and increase engagement.
Accessible ways to check in
With clinicians’ busy schedules, creating “bite-sized” wellness sessions for them made sense to Dr. Dawn Ellison, emergency physician and clinical partner engagement officer at CentraCare in Minnesota. “With COVID, we offered a noon time, 15-minute pop-in session we called ‘Wellness Reset’,” she says. “There are eight of us who would take turns offering a mindfulness, self-compassion, or grounding practice. People could pop into a WebEx and reset from the morning so they could take on the afternoon.”
Space to decompress
To help alleviate pandemic-related stress Ochsner Health in Louisiana created decompression zones for its clinicians. “These are quiet spaces, usually in our waiting areas and lobbies that weren’t being utilized by visitors,” says Melissa Love, vice president for professional staff services and the office of professional well-being at Ochsner. “When they were finished with their shift, they had somewhere that was quiet and dedicated.”
Love says Ochsner also began providing decompression sessions with the help of their therapy and wellness resources. “We had people available when you were coming off your shift, and we had behavioral health providers rounding in some of our specific code units. You didn’t have to call and ask for it, we were just showing up.”
Clinicians as wellness leaders
In determining how to help their clinicians, Dr. Ellison says she asked stakeholders directly for their thoughts on the best way to tackle the problem of COVID-related anxiety and burnout. “What came out of it was that clinical partners want to help their staff. Ellison’s team worked on a well-being presentation that clinical partners could present to their staff for CME credits while reinforcing for themselves self-care best practices.
Taking care of the whole person
Love says that many clinicians told her that their problems weren’t stemming from work, but from their lives at home. “As an organization we did a lot,” she says of Ochsner. “We provided childcare when schools were closed. There were a lot of things that our executive team did to take the pressure off, not just for the physicians and APPs, but for all.”
At Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia, administrators found a solution that allowed for continued patient care and physician work/life balance. “We were able to alter the hours that physicians could see patients and allowed them to work from home,” says Lamont Louis, CEO of physician services. This solution also allowed medical assistants and nursing support staff to be reassigned to other areas of the health system where they were needed.
While many in-person wellness and provider engagement events were cancelled due to COVID concerns, moving them online allowed many organizations to continue their programs. CentraCare typically holds a quarterly clinical partner forum, and they went virtual during the height of the pandemic. One virtual quarterly session had about 90 clinical partners in attendance for the session, according to Dr. Ellison, and the session focused on anti-racism in medicine.
They wanted to address the fact that COVID affected marginalized persons more than the majority population, so CentraCare felt it was an important topic to address. “I think it gave people an opportunity to see this racist system we have created,” Dr. Ellison says. “‘Not intentionally, but we did create it by not being intentional about anti-racism. I think in a way, COVID shone a light on that and gave us an opportunity to do something about it.”
It can be hard to remember to recognize others’ hard work during a crisis, but it’s especially important that providers feel appreciated during difficult times. Dr. Ellison developed appreciation programs at her institution as a way to express appreciation for clinicians’ efforts.
“I think a card from a department manager to your home expressing appreciation to you for something a patient said is really meaningful,” she says. “Making people feel known and cared for, while recognizing their hard work is more effective than just recognizing the work.”
Preparing for the future
Healthcare organizations should plan for how the pandemic will continue to affect healthcare providers in the future. Dr. Dike Drummond, family practice physician and CEO and founder of The Happy MD, says implementing mental health care services for providers now can help.
Drummond says research from the SARS epidemic says to expect an 18-month delayed wave of mental health issues popping up, especially in providers who have been on the frontlines. “It’s always been important to have services in place, so people don’t fall by the side of the road, but get ready. Assuming we get to some sort of normal where the crisis has passed on this intensity, there’s a wave coming,” he says.
The benefits of better engagement
Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, improving provider engagement is one of the best things you can do for your organization right now. Engaged providers are more likely to provide better patient outcomes, report higher well-being, and contribute to lower costs overall. It’s also a step toward changing the culture around physicians’ mental health — at a time when many need it most.
If you have physicians who are struggling with burnout, the Physician Support Line provides free and confidential mental health services to physicians at 1.888.409.0141 or by visiting www.physiciansupportline.com.