Is Your Physician Burnout Impacting Patient Experience?

Dawn Pascale

Provider burnout has reached staggering levels and there is plenty of data that suggests this is a major contributing factor to negative patient experiences. As providers encounter more job stressors, quality care wanes. It would make sense that the fatigue these physicians feel contributes to patient frustration and lowered satisfaction scores. 

But is the correlation as strong as we have been led to believe?  

A new study from Stanford University School of Medicine says the medical community may have been overstating these issues.

Burnout is High, but is Patient Satisfaction Low?

Patient Engagement HIT says, “Conventional wisdom has stated that high levels of provider burnout can be bad news for patients.” However, in October 2019, the Annals of Internal Medicine reported on a Stanford study that discounted the conventional wisdom in favor of new evidence suggesting the correlation between burnout and quality of care is lower than we initially assumed.

While there is some truth that physicians who are distracted, stressed, or overburdened can make medical mistakes or fail to make a significant connection to their patients, Stanford researchers did an evaluation of the literature to date and questioned these assumptions and the clinical data leading to the correlation.

Researchers reviewed 145 studies correlating lowered patient care quality to physician burnout and determined these findings may be exaggerated. They looked at 114 burnout and care quality metrics, including 58 that specifically tried to tie burnout to poor patient outcomes. Their determination was that 50 of the metrics were neutral, failing to quantify the correlation, and only six revealed a connection between the quality of care and physician burnout. Researchers also suggested these studies placed too much significance on the research findings linking burnout and poor care. They stated 73% of the 145 studies overemphasized the links due to their study design.

The researchers wrote, “Although the effect sizes in the published literature are moderately strong, our finding of excess significance implies that the true magnitude may be smaller than reported.” The problem in study design came from a lack of preregistered study protocols that increased the risk of weighting these studies in favor of the “common sense” assumption that doctor burnout negatively affects patient care.

It should be noted that the researchers were not saying that physician burnout does not contribute to lower patient satisfaction scores or quality care, just that more data is needed to understand the extend of the problem fully. Researchers wrote, “We conclude that higher burnout is associated with lower quality, but we are left without clear answers about the magnitude or clinical significance of the relationship.” 

The Take-Away

Even under major stresses, your physician may still be delivering excellent patient care and what’s really failing is them being able to take care of themselves.   Even more than that, perhaps this is the data we need for healthcare employers to address burnout before they see any noticeable changes in their provider or in overall patient satisfaction.  Addressing burnout by how it affects your providers as individuals and not how burnout affects patient care could be a more compelling way to deliver the message.

Physician burnout never has to be your reality.   At MedSource Consultants, we are committed to helping your facility offer work-life balance to reduce burnout and its ripple effect.  Furthermore, pur work brings talented clinical team members to your organization to help lighten the load for your existing team. Contact our healthcare recruitment experts today for more information.