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Surgeon General’s Burnout Advisory Brings Overdue Attention to Longstanding Issue
“Unprecedented.” It’s a commonplace word these days, because when it comes to life since the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, no other word will do.
Recently, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued something that has also been unprecedented until now: An Advisory on burnout among healthcare workers—and a social mandate to help fight it.
Defined as “A public statement that calls the American people’s attention to an urgent public health issue and provides recommendations for how that issue should be addressed,” a Surgeon General’s Advisory is classified as a significant public health challenge that the nation must recognize.
To build a thriving health workforce, Dr. Murthy says in his Advisory, we must change the way in which we prioritize the mental health of our healthcare workers.
“As we transition toward recovery [of the pandemic], we have a moral obligation to address the long-standing crisis of burnout, exhaustion and moral distress across the health community,” he stated. “We owe health workers far more than our gratitude. We owe them an urgent debt of action.”
“Our Health Depends on the Well-Being of our Health Workforce”
It’s an age-old adage that’s been exacerbated over the last few years: How can you be expected to take care of others when you don’t have time to take care of yourself? Yet, regardless of their exhaustion and burnout, healthcare workers must show up every day prepared to provide care for others. Most providers feel that the relentless demand leaves them with little choice.
But now that the Surgeon General is shining a light on the issue, the well-being of our health workforce may finally be receiving the recognition and attention it so desperately needs.
“If we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at increasing risk,” Dr. Murthy said. “Already, Americans are feeling the impact of staff shortages across the health system in hospitals, primary care clinics, and public health departments. As the burnout and mental health crisis among health workers worsens, this will affect the public’s ability to get routine preventative care, emergency care, and medical procedures.”
Healthcare Worker Burnout is an “Every Person” Issue
Somewhere along the way, the concept of burnout among healthcare workers became an all-too accepted side effect of the job. In fact, in the eyes of the public, the image of the always-on-call doctor may even seem glamorous.
But as we’re now recognizing, this image is not glamorous—and its ramifications go beyond the providers themselves. Healthcare worker burnout affects the quality and availability of care for everyone. At our current levels, burnout’s ripple effect makes it an every-person issue.
Thankfully, as Tina Shah, MD, explains in an article by the American Medical Association, the Advisory is bringing many important things to light. “What the Surgeon General’s Advisory does is, No. 1, tell the public that this is not just a doctor’s issue,” she explains. “This is every single person in our country’s issue. This is a public issue. And No. 2, it provides a road map that will hopefully help take out the silos and stitch together all the people who are needed to work on this so that we see the change and feel it.”
Committed to Making a Change
The Surgeon General’s Advisory makes one thing innately clear: he is committed to changing the complacency we’ve accepted when it comes to burnout in healthcare. The sooner society begins to understand that the burnout and exhaustion that healthcare workers face daily is in fact an “every person” issue, the easier it will become for systemic changes to take shape.
As we discussed in our article, Keeping Burnout at Bay: How Healthcare Administrators are Stepping Up to Help Struggling Physicians, some healthcare administrators have already taken steps to ensure their front-line workers receive the care they need. Now, with the help of the Advisory, these changes may become more widespread.
One tactic that many systems are using to open the lines of communication between clinicians and administration is hiring a Chief Wellness Officer. This position, according to the Advisory, can include “developing online safety hubs with resources, adding well-being metrics into key performance indicators for the organization and linking executive compensation with improvements in health worker well-being.”
Other notable changes that Dr. Murthy hopes to implement include:
- Eliminating punitive policies for seeking mental health and substance use care
- Reducing administrative and other workplace burdens to help health workers make time for what matters
- Transforming organizational cultures to prioritize health worker well-being and show all health workers that they are valued
- Recognizing social connection and community as a core value of the healthcare system
- Investing in public health and our public health workforce
“Getting Rid of Stupid Stuff”
In today’s healthcare landscape, where documentation demands run deep and EHRs are often seen as the enemy, it’s impossible to bring up burnout without also mentioning the behind-the-scenes burdens that bog down clinicians.
We’ve mentioned it before in many of our previous articles, including Documentation and the Deterioration of Doctors’ Work-Life Balance, but it bears repeating: the barrage of busy work that piles up incessantly on the plates of clinicians is often what tips them over the breaking point.
Case in point? The formation of the “Getting Rid of Stupid Stuff” program by Hawaii Pacific Health. According to the AMA article, “This program asks employees to assess their experiences with the EHR and recommend unnecessary or poorly designed tasks to eliminate to save time each day.” By reducing the unnecessary daily burdens that take up so much of clinicians’ precious time, this program is doing its part to keep burnout at bay.
With so many responsibilities on their plate day in and day out, it’s easy to understand how even the most seasoned clinicians can quickly become overwhelmed and burnt out. But now, thanks to the Surgeon General sounding the alarm on this significant public health problem, clinicians have hope that the longstanding issue of burnout will not be tolerated any longer.
Will it be easy? Dr. Murthy himself admits that it will be far from it.
“Many of the recommendations in this Advisory require significant structural change and sustained investment,” he states. “They will take time and require our continued attention and action. But the hope of health workers has endured through far worse. Our efforts must as well.”
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