Letters from Maine

Too many patient call messages


In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association that used EHR logs, researchers found that “Clinicians with the highest volume of patient call messages have almost 4 times the odds of burnout compared with clinicians with the fewest.” And they discovered that “No other workload measures were significantly associated with burnout.” Like the majority of papers I skim through, it states the obvious. Doesn’t it makes sense that the busiest of providers should be more vulnerable to stress related symptoms? But is that really true for every provider? Being “busy” doesn’t guarantee that you are productive nor does it mean that the stuff you are doing while you are busy is fulfilling or rewarding either emotionally or financially. Certainly, slogging through a long list of patient call messages at the end of the day does qualify as being busy, but it is more likely to generate anger and frustration than it is fulfillment.

Yuri_Arcurs/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Just because you have a large practice, does that mean that you will necessarily have more messages to review and calls to return than a provider with a smaller practice. Maybe you manage your practice and your time so well that you actually have fewer messages and calls to return and, therefore, are less vulnerable to burnout.

There are three general strategies that you might be employing that result in fewer messages and calls that require your response. It may be that you have developed a handbook of frequently asked questions and trained your staff to use it as a reference in a way that reduces the number of messages that filter to you. Creating this triage book and finding the right personnel took time, but it didn’t necessarily mean that you had to hire staff with extensive training, which can be expensive. In-house training of raw talent that has demonstrated common sense and good communication skills can be cost effective and rewarding. You probably already have discovered that continued attention to quality control is an important part of this strategy. Included in your handbook you may have included a clearcut triage system for the questions that the staff can’t answer. Is it a question you must answer (a) as soon as you finish with this patient, (b) before lunch, or (c) at the end of the day? (Category (c) is of course strongly discouraged).

The second general group of strategies you may be using to keep your calls and messages to a minimum is anticipatory guidance. As you wrap up each visit, are you anticipating what calls it might generate? This of course depends on the nature of the problem and the personality of the patient. From your experience you can probably predict most of the questions that are likely going to crop up after the patient arrives home. Preemptively answering these before patients leave and providing a personalized handout that you discuss with them may easily be saving you two or three calls a day. Because you can’t anticipate every question, you have found that promising a follow-up call in a day or 2 encourages the patients to hold their questions and wait for you or your assistant to call.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Finally, you may have discovered long ago that in many cases it is easier and more efficient to see the patient rather than having your staff spend half their time building and maintaining a communication wall around you. This is particularly true if, during the initial contact with your office, the patients have made it clear that they would like to be seen. This strategy is based on commons sense, but for many physicians and their office staff it may require a dramatic shift in attitude. You may have needed to become more comfortable squeezing in short visits at which the goal is to simply begin the dual processes of anxiety relief and diagnosis. In the beginning, you may have had to frequently remind your staff that their primary goal is patient satisfaction and not protecting you from seeing “too many” patients. Ironically, by being over protective, they may have been contributing to burnout when simply cutting to the chase and having the patient come in to be seen would have generated fewer stress-producing calls and messages.

There are different kinds of busy, and there are strategies to minimize the kind of busy that leads to burnout. Enabling a system that generates an excess of patient messages is looking for trouble.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

Next Article: