Long before 2020, alarm bells were ringing about the toll burnout has taken on physician lives and careers - and, consequently, the risks burnout presents to virtually every type of health care organization. Then along came the pandemic - and the challenge of burnout to health care organizations jumped off the scale.
A look at the problem
The Physicians Foundation’s 2021 Survey of America’s Physicians found that 61% of participating physicians "often experience feelings of burnout," compared to "only" 40% in 2018. What’s more, frequent feelings of burnout were even more commonly reported (64%) among employed physicians, underscoring the impact on larger organizations and the recruiters who staff the clinician ranks.
Data from a recent Association for Advancing Physician and Provider Recruitment (AAPPR) study echo these findings and emphasize the impact on physician retention and recruitment in particular. Participating recruiters noted that burnout was a top factor in clinician turnover in more than a quarter of physician exits. Other reasons physicians state for leaving their jobs, such as earlier-than-expected retirement, may also have been influenced by burnout.
This new state of urgency may be fostering faster learning and willingness to adapt, just as it has done for telemedicine and other technology adoption. Physician recruiters have an opportunity to promote these changes and advance clinician wellness inside their organizations.
"Certainly physician recruiters are in a position to see the big picture," says Liz Mahan, director of professional development and solutions with AAPPR. "They can see how many openings they can they have, they can see patterns unfolding within divisions or departments or practices. They’re making themselves subject matter experts in the area of physician retention."
While it may feel like change is slow to happen, especially in the largest organizations, there are actions individual recruiters and their teams can take to head off or lessen the impact of burnout, one new hire at a time.
1. Don’t be afraid to be truthful
When candidates ask about burnout, be honest about how it has affected your organization and what your leadership is doing about it. Otherwise, you may turn candidates away by painting an unrealistically rosy picture - or by implying that burnout is considered a problem physicians must deal with entirely on their own.
As Gary Price, M.D., president of the Physicians Foundation, says, it’s a red flag "when people say, ‘Oh, [burnout] isn’t a problem for us. Everyone is very happy and content…’ Because I think for a long time, the entire system had blinders on about this, and some people still do. And that would imply to me that there’s a perception within the organization that you only can get burnout if you’re not tough enough."
2. Encourage candidates to share
If a candidate is applying with your organization after working somewhere else and you think burnout might have been a factor in their departure, try to get them to talk about the issues they experienced. This may mean having a franker, more delicate conversation than has been customary in the recruitment process. But if burnout was precipitated by factors that may also be present in your open position, tackling the subject head on is necessary to avoid painful repetition.
"For recruiters who are hiring new physicians that may be coming from a burnout situation, it’s important to have those conversations about what led them to this point - and to determine if it’s realistic that these things will be resolved by taking a new job, or are the physician and the recruiter just going to be back to where they started in a year or two?" Mahan says.
3. Support the support system
"I always, always would advocate, if the physician has a family, to at least bring the spouse for a visit during the interview process," says Mahan. "We know from our research and from experience that if a provider and their family move to a community and the family doesn’t find meaningful connections within that community, they’re more likely to leave."
Mahan adds that some organizations have formal or informal organizations of clinician spouses. Introducing visiting candidates early on to these groups can help couples determine together if the fit is right.
4. Use data to win battles
Data about burnout may help open long-closed doors to ideas like job-sharing and part-time physician roles. For example, the Physicians Foundation study, among others, found that primary care physicians and women are somewhat more likely to experience burnout. While resistance to part-time roles is not uncommon in health care organizations, the option to work part time could help your organization retain physicians who are invaluable and hard to replace. Survey data, combined with your own internal statistics, could help you build a more persuasive case.