It seems you can’t escape discussion about the shortage of physicians and hospital workers. It’s the top trending topic at industry conferences, association meetings, and the nightly news alike. In a post-Covid world, staffing is problematic across many industries but in healthcare, the problem is compounded by burnout and the large percentage of practitioners who are preparing for retirement. With the many pandemic-fueled rapid changes the global workforce endured during the last two years, now is the time to reassess and rethink healthcare employment by empowering clinicians in new, meaningful ways.
Addressing the Facts
A 2019 Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) report predicted a U.S. shortage of up to 28,700 surgeons by the year 2033. The shortage has immediate real consequences. Just last year, Becker’s reported an anesthesiologist shortage led to an Illinois hospital canceling elective procedures. And in rural America, a shortage of clinician expertise is contributing to hospital closures and the lack of healthcare access at an alarming rate. In fact, a March 2022 Becker’s CFO Report explains that 892 rural hospitals — more than 40 percent of all rural hospitals in the U.S. — are at immediate or high risk of closure.
Without adequate, predictable clinician staffing, hospitals are forced to make difficult decisions including restricting access to care for patients or migrating cases to alternative facilities.
“While nobody has a single magic solution to solve hospital staffing discrepancies, we’ve decided to step back and consider an alternative approach,” says Dan Siegel, CEO of Synergy Health Partners. “Rather than starting with unpredictable staffing circumstances at the end of the line, we are examining the lifestyle needs of our doctors and clinicians from their perspective. If there’s any silver lining that emerges from the pandemic, it may be how we rebuild the worker experience across the board. Healthcare staffing may have a profound opportunity ahead as a result.”
Reducing Attrition by Listening
Clinicians are professionally dedicated to their patients, first and foremost. But they are people, too. They have lives outside the hospital, whether the public or the business of healthcare recognizes it or not. Like anyone else, clinicians are parents, caregivers, volunteers, music enthusiasts, athletes, socialites, and foodies. It may feel like career demands overshadow the interests and experiences that make life whole, happy, and healthy for clinicians as people. Covid-19 placed a magnifying glass on the consequences caused by work-life imbalance and stress overdose as we daily bore witness to hospital workers overcoming insurmountable odds.
According to Healthcare News, “Before the start of the pandemic, the percentage of clinicians reporting some degree of burnout was consistently about 25 percent. Now that number has increased to approximately one-third, and a significant portion of that increase can be attributed to Covid-19.”
If clinicians aren’t healthy, their patients suffer and so do their communities and hospitals. And if they leave the practice of medicine altogether as a result of that imbalance and the detriments of stress, hospitals are forced to make tough decisions.
“We permitted ourselves to explore what happens when we put clinicians first and listen deeply to what they want. We are open to reinventing how we schedule and demand work from our doctors, nurses, and technicians. What would happen if they could focus more on patients and less on administrivia? What happens if we prioritize a healthy work-life balance so we can care for those who care for us?” proposes Siegel.
Similar to the notion that unlimited paid time off actually yields bottom-line benefits in the private sector, healthcare as an industry needs to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of positioning the career options it presents as holistically supportive, from career pathing to mental health.
“The founders of Synergy Health Partners are pioneers in many ways. They are also practicing surgeons. They know first-hand the sacrifices surgeons make to prioritize their patients and maintain their career trajectories,” says Siegel.
“This shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition when you’re considering a job as a surgeon or clinician. You don’t have to give up your personal life in exchange for a healthcare career. If we collectively work harder to prioritize a clinician-first philosophy, we will successfully reimagine surgery and other clinical paths as lifestyle careers. We believe this is the key to attracting and retaining top talent,” reveals Siegel.
With the surgicalist approach and other care delivery models that prioritize professional and personal equilibrium, clinicians thrive outside of the hospital setting. They are well-rounded, invigorated, focused physicians. The societal and financial consequences that result from a clinical workforce that is anything less than healthy, affect everyone. “Trauma surgeons with poor work-life balance had nearly twice the rate of burnout (77 percent vs. 39 percent), and 61 percent of trauma surgeons overall were burned out,” reports General Surgery News.
“Just last week I was driving 45 miles per hour around a bend north of Big Sur and out of the sky a wet and heavy tree branch pierced my windshield. Glass exploded everywhere. The branch came inside the car and miraculously stopped a foot from my chest. My son and I walked away but the experience emphasized my strong belief that if you’re in an accident and need emergency surgery, do you want to be assigned a physician who is sleep-deprived and stressed to the point they are struggling with physical and mental health problems? No. Nobody would,” shares Siegel.
“When we design care delivery systems that put clinicians’ needs first, we all benefit from well-rested, more alert caregivers. When more clinicians are available where and when they are needed most, hospitals can improve access to care and reduce case outmigration. It’s time to do things differently on all fronts. Particularly in our field of emergency medicine, patients’ lives depend on it.”