An epidemic of burnout
The numbing repetition, the box-ticking and the endless searching on pulldown menus are all part of what Ratwani called the “cognitive burden” that’s wearing out today’s physicians and driving increasing numbers into early retirement.
In recent years, “physician burnout” has skyrocketed to the top of the agenda in medicine. A 2018 Merritt Hawkins survey found a staggering 78 percent of doctors suffered symptoms of burnout, and in January the Harvard School of Public Health and other institutions deemed it a “public health crisis.”
One of the co-authors of the Harvard study, Ashish Jha, pinned much of the blame on “the growth in poorly designed digital health records ... that [have] required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients.”
Few would deny that the swift digitization of America’s medical system has been transformative. With EHRs now nearly universal, the face and feel of medicine has changed. The doctor is now typing away, making more eye contact with the computer screen, perhaps, than with the patient. Patients don’t like that dynamic; for doctors, whose days increasingly begin and end with such fleeting encounters, the effect can be downright deadening.
“You’re sitting in front of a patient, and there are so many things you have to do, and you only have so much time to do it in – seven to 11 minutes, probably – so when do you really listen?” asked John-Henry Pfifferling, a medical anthropologist who counsels physicians suffering from burnout. “If you go into medicine because you care about interacting, and then you’re just a tool, it’s dehumanizing,” said Pfifferling, who has seen many physicians leave medicine over the shift to electronic records. “It’s a disaster,” he said.
Beyond complicating the physician-patient relationship, EHRs have in some ways made practicing medicine harder, said Dr. Hal Baker, a physician and the chief information officer at WellSpan, a Pennsylvania hospital system. “Physicians have to cognitively switch between focusing on the record and focusing on the patient,” he said. He points out how unusual – and potentially dangerous – this is: “Texting while you’re driving is not a good idea. And I have yet to see the CEO who, while running a board meeting, takes minutes, and certainly I’ve never heard of a judge who, during the trial, would also be the court stenographer. But in medicine ... we’ve asked the physician to move from writing in pen to [entering a computer] record, and it’s a pretty complicated interface.”
Even if docs may be at the keyboard during visits, they report having to spend hours more outside that time – at lunch, late at night – in order to finish notes and keep up with electronic paperwork (sending referrals, corresponding with patients, resolving coding issues). That’s right. EHRs didn’t take away paperwork; the systems just moved it online. And there’s a lot of it: 44 percent of the roughly six hours a physician spends on the EHR each day is focused on clerical and administrative tasks, like billing and coding, according to a 2017 Annals of Family Medicine study.
For all that so-called pajama time – the average physician logs 1.4 hours per day on the EHR after work – they don’t get a cent.
Many doctors do recognize the value in the technology: 60 percent of participants in Stanford Medicine’s 2018 National Physician Poll said EHRs had led to improved patient care. At the same time, about as many (59 percent) said EHRs needed a “complete overhaul” and that the systems had detracted from their professional satisfaction (54 percent) as well as from their clinical effectiveness (49 percent).
In preliminary studies, Ratwani has found that doctors have a typical physiological reaction to using an EHR: stress. When he and his team shadow clinicians on the job, they use a range of sensors to monitor the doctors’ heart rate and other vital signs over the course of their shift. The physicians’ heart rates will spike – as high as 160 beats per minute – on two sorts of occasions: when they are interacting with patients and when they’re using the EHR.
Approximate number of computer clicks an ER doctor makes over the course of a single shift, according to an American Journal of Emergency Medicine study
“Everything is so cumbersome,” said Dr. Karla Dick, a family medicine physician in Arlington, Texas. “It’s slow compared to a paper chart. You’re having to click and zoom in and zoom out to look for stuff.” With all the zooming in and out, she explained, it’s easy to end up in the wrong record. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to cancel an order because I was in the wrong chart.”
Among the daily frustrations for one emergency room physician in Rhode Island is ordering ibuprofen, a seemingly simple task that now requires many rounds of mouse clicking. Every time she prescribes the basic painkiller for a female patient, whether that patient is 9 or 68 years old, the prescription is blocked by a pop-up alert warning her that it may be dangerous to give the drug to a pregnant woman. The physician, whose institution does not allow her to comment on the systems, must then override the warning with yet more clicks. “That’s just the tiniest tip of the iceberg,” she said.
What worries the doctor most is the ease with which diligent, well-meaning physicians can make serious medical errors. She noted that the average ER doc will make 4,000 mouse clicks over the course of a shift, and that the odds of doing anything 4,000 times without an error is small. “The interfaces are just so confusing and clunky,” she added. “They invite error ... it’s not a negligence issue. This is a poor tool issue.”
Many of the EHR makers acknowledge physician burnout is real and say they’re doing what they can to lessen the burden and enhance user experience. Dr. Sam Butler, a pulmonary critical care specialist who started working at Epic in 2001, leads those efforts at the Wisconsin-based company. When doctors get more than 100 messages per week in their in-basket (akin to an email inbox), there’s a higher likelihood of burnout. Butler’s team has also analyzed doctors’ electronic notes – they’re twice as long as they were nine years ago, and three to four times as long as notes in the rest of the world. He said Epic uses such insights to improve the client experience. But coming up with fixes is difficult because doctors “have different viewpoints on everything,” he said. (KHN and Fortune made multiple requests to interview Epic CEO Judy Faulkner, but the company declined to make her available. In a trade interview in February, however, Faulkner said that EHRs were unfairly blamed for physician burnout and cited a study suggesting that there’s little correlation between burnout and EHR satisfaction. Executives at other vendors noted that they’re aware of usability issues and that they’re working on addressing them.)
“It’s not that we’re a bunch of Luddites who don’t know how to use technology,” said the Rhode Island ER doctor. “I have an iPhone and a computer and they work the way they’re supposed to work, and then we’re given these incredibly cumbersome and error-prone tools. This is something the government mandated. There really wasn’t the time to let the cream rise to the top; everyone had to jump in and pick something that worked and spend tens of millions of dollars on a system that is slowly killing us.”