How One Medical Group Is Decreasing Physician Burnout

Executive Summary

Physician burnout is a growing problem for all health care systems in the United States. Burned-out physicians deliver lower quality care, reduce their hours, or stop practicing, reducing access to care around the country. Primary care physicians are particularly vulnerable: They have some of the highest burnout rates of any medical discipline. As part of the authors’ work researching high-performing primary care systems, they discovered a system-wide approach launched by Southern California Permanente Medical Group in 2004 that unburdens primary care physicians. They believe the program – Complete Care – may be a viable model for other institutions looking to decrease burnout or increase physician satisfaction. It has four core elements. 1) It had specialties share accountability for preventative and chronic care services with primary care physicians. 2) It transferred tasks from physicians – not just those in primary care – to non-physicians so physicians could spend their time doing tasks only they could do and everyone was working at the top of his or her license. 3) It leveraged technology — for instance, information technologies that allowed patients to schedule visits from mobile apps, access online personalized plans, and manage complex schedules (e.g., the steps prior to a kidney transplant). 4) It standardized work processes — in particular, workflows.

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Physician burnout is a growing problem for all health care systems in the United States. Burned-out physicians deliver lower quality care, reduce their hours, or stop practicing, reducing access to care around the country. Primary care physicians are particularly vulnerable: They have some of the highest burnout rates of any medical discipline.

As part of our work researching high-performing primary care systems, we discovered a system-wide approach launched by Southern California Permanente Medical Group (SCPMG) in 2004 that unburdens primary care physicians. We believe the program — Complete Care — may be a viable model for other institutions looking to decrease burnout or increase physician satisfaction. (While burnout can easily be measured, institutions often don’t publicly report their own rates and the associated turnover they experience. Consequently, we used physician satisfaction as a proxy for burnout in our research.)

Insight Center

In most health care systems, primary care physicians are the first stop for patients needing care. As a result, their patients’ needs — and their own tasks — vary immensely. A primary care physician’s work includes vaccinations, screenings, chronic disease prevention and treatment, relationship building, family planning, behavioral health, counseling, and other vital but time-consuming work.

Some studies have examined just how much time a primary care physician needs to do all of these tasks and the results are staggering. To be in full compliance with the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations, primary care physicians with average-sized patient populations need to dedicate 7.4 hours per day to preventative care alone. Taken in conjunction with the other primary care services, namely acute and chronic care, the estimated total working hours per primary care physician comes to 21.7 hours per day, or 108.5 hours per week. Given such workloads, the high burnout rate is hardly surprising.

While designed with the intent to improve quality of care, SCPMG’s Complete Care program also alleviates some of the identified drivers of physician burnout by following a systematic approach to care delivery. Comprised of 8,500 physicians, SCPMG consistently provides the highest quality care to the region’s 4.4 million plan members. And a recent study of SCPMG physician satisfaction suggests that regardless of discipline, physicians feel high levels of satisfaction in three key areas: their compensation, their perceived ability to deliver high-quality care, and their day-to-day professional lives.

Complete Care has four core elements:

Share Accountability with Specialists

A few years ago, SCPMG’s regional medical director of quality and clinical analysis noticed a plateauing effect in some preventative screenings where screenings rates failed to increase after a certain percentage. He asked his team to analyze how certain patient populations — for example, women in need of a mammogram — accessed the health care system. As approximately one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes, a failure to receive the recommended preventative screening could have serious health repercussions.

What the team found was startling: Over the course of a year, nearly two-thirds of women clinically eligible for a mammogram never set foot in their primary care physician’s office. Instead they showed up in specialty care or urgent care.

While this discovery spurred more research into patient access, the outcome remained the same: To achieve better rates of preventative and chronic care compliance, specialists had to be brought into the fold.

SCPMG slowly started to share accountability for preventative and chronic care services (e.g., treating people with hypertension or women in need of a mammogram) with high-volume specialties. In order to bring the specialists on board, SCPMG identified and enlisted physician champions across the medical group to promote the program throughout the region; carefully timed the rollouts of different elements of the program pieces so increased demands wouldn’t overwhelm specialists; and crafted incentive programs whose payout was tied to their performance of preventative and chronic-care activities.

This reallocation of traditional primary care responsibilities has allowed SCPMG to achieve a high level of care integration and challenge traditional notions of roles and systems. Its specialists now have to respond to patients’ needs outside their immediate expertise: For example, a podiatrist will inquire whether a diabetic patient has had his or her regular eye examination, and an emergency room doctor will stitch up a cut and give immunizations in the same visit. And the whole system, not just primary care, is responsible for quality metrics related to prevention and chronic care (e.g., the percentage of eligible patients who received a mammogram).

In addition, SCPMG revamped the way it provided care to match how patients accessed and used their system. For example, it began promoting the idea of the comprehensive visit, where patients could see their primary care provider, get blood drawn, and pick up prescribed medications in the same building.

Ultimately, the burden on primary care physicians started to ease. Even more important, SCPMG estimates that Complete Care has saved over 17,000 lives.

Delegate Responsibility

“Right work, right people,” a guiding principle, helped shape the revamping of the organization’s infrastructure. One fundamental move was to transfer tasks from physicians — not just those in primary care — to non-physicians so physicians could spend their time doing tasks only they could do and everyone was working at the top of his or her license. For example, embedded nurse managers of diabetic patients help coordinate care visits, regularly communicate directly with patients about meeting their health goals (such as weekly calls about lower HbA1c levels), and track metrics on diabetic populations across the entire organization. At the same time, dedicated prescribing nurse practitioners work closely with physicians to monitor medication use, which in the case of blood thinners, is very time intensive and requires careful titration.

Leverage Technology

SCPMG invested in information technologies that allowed patients to schedule visits from mobile apps, access online personalized health care plans (e.g., customized weight-loss calendars and healthy recipes), and manage complex schedules (e.g., the steps prior to a kidney transplant). It also established a small outreach team (about four people) that uses large automated registries of patients to mail seasonal reminders (e.g., “it’s time for your flu vaccine shot”) and alerts about routine checkups (e.g., “you are due for a mammogram”) and handle other duties (e.g., coordinating mail-order, at-home fecal tests for colon cancer). In addition, the outreach team manages automated calls and e-mail reminders for the regions 4.4 million members.

Thanks to this reorganization of responsibilities and use of new technology, traditional primary care tasks such as monitoring blood thinners, managing diabetic care, and tracking patients eligibility for cancer screenings have been transferred to other people and processes within the SCPMG system.

Standardize Care Processes

The final element of Complete Care is the kind of process standardization advocated by Atul Gawande’s in his New Yorker article “Big Med.” Standardizing processes — and in particular, workflows — removes duplicative work, strengthens working relationships, and results in higher-functioning teams, reliable routines and higher-quality outcomes. In primary care, standardized workflows help create consistent communications between providers and staff and providers and patients, which allows physicians to spend more time during visits on patients’ pressing needs.

One such process, the “Proactive Office Encounter” (POE), ensures consistent evidence-based care at every encounter across the organization. At its core, the POE is an agreement of process and delegation of tasks between physicians and their administrative supports. It was originally developed to improve communications between support staff and physicians after SCPMG’s electronic medical record was introduced.

Medical assistants (MAs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) are key players. A series of checklists embedded into the medical record guide their work both before and after the visit. These checklists contain symptoms, actions, and questions that are timely and specific to each patient based on age, disease status, and reason for his or her visit. Prior to the visit, MAs or LVNs contact patients with pre-visit instructions or to schedule necessary lab work. During the visit, they use the same checklists to follow up pre-visit instructions, take vitals, conduct medication reconciliation and prep the patient for the provider.

Pop-ups within the medical record indicate a patient’s eligibility for a new screening or regular test based on new literature, prompting the MAs or LVNs to ask patients for additional information. During the visit, physicians have access to the same checklists and data collected by the MAs or LVNs. This enables them to review the work quickly and efficiently and follow up on any flagged issues. After the visit with the physician, patients see an MA or LVN again and receive a summary of topics discussed with the provider and specific instructions or health education resources.

Contemporary physicians face many challenges: an aging population, rising rates of chronic conditions, workforce shortages, technological uncertainty, changing governmental policies, and greater disparities in health outcomes across populations. All of this, it could be argued, disproportionately affect primary care specialties. These factors promise to increase physician burnout unless something is done by health care organizations to ease their burden. SCPMG’s Complete Care initiative offers a viable blueprint to do just that.

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