Stop Physician Burnout - Organizations Doomed to Fail if They Only Treat Burnout Symptoms

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

symptoms-physician-burnout-personal-organization-business-case-for-preventionStop Physician Burnout - Treating the Symptoms only Makes Burnout Worse

Physician burnout has two sets of symptoms

  • One for the Doctor - the personal signs and symptoms that YOU are suffering from burnout as an individual
  • One for the Organization - the various way rising levels of physician burnout destroy the performance and morale of a population of healthcare providers

For the individual physician, here is one of our most popular posts on burnout's symptoms and gender differences.

In this blog post, let me show you three quick observations from our work with over 140 healthcare organizations and societies to date:

  • The common organizational symptoms of burnout
  • How and why most groups only treat the symptoms of provider burnout
  • And why just treating the symptoms inevitably makes everything worse

If you measure provider burnout within a healthcare delivery organization - and look for a correlation between burnout rates and the quality of the care that group provides to its patients - you will find distinct, reproducible trends.

Higher levels of provider burnout destroy the quality of patient care and the morale of the doctors in several consistent ways. Here is a partial list of those changes:  

Higher levels of physician burnout lead to:

  • Lower quality and patient satisfaction
  • More errors and malpractice suits
  • Higher turnover of physicians and staff

All of these issues are easy to see - the tip of the iceberg - and universally understood.

What remains invisible is the underlying cause of these surface issues/symptoms. Remember all of these issues have a common cause ... the level of  provider burnout.

fundamental currency

Now let's add in money.

In today's Pay for Performance world of contracting, nearly all organizations get paid for demonstrating positive changes in these same burnout symptoms. You get paid more for higher quality and satisfaction and save money by avoiding errors and turnover.

And so, the committees begin to multiply like rabbits.

Check it out for yourself

In your own organization I bet you have a Quality Committee and a Safety Council and a Patient Satisfaction Training Program, each of which have regular meetings, detailed agendas and multiple programs focused on improving dozens of metrics. They may have different names than the ones I listed and nearly all organizations have these standing committees and programs.

Realize that each and every one of these structures are simply treating the symptoms of burnout ... while burnout smolders unaddressed beneath the surface. Most leaders don't understand how to address burnout in any meaningful way and most organizations don't have an effective Burnout Prevention Working Group ... so they get busy treating the symptoms instead.


If we treated patients like this ... our license would be in danger

Just Imagine ...

Imagine one of your patients presented today with fever, cough and shortness of breath. You examined them and prescribed

  • Tylenol for fever
  • Cough syrup for cough
  • Oxygen for shortness of breath

Then patted yourself on the back for a job well done and sent them home to recuperate, confident in their recovery

cxr-physician-burnout-symptoms-safety-quality-satisfaction-turnover_opt240WLeaving the underlying active tuberculosis untreated !!!!!!!


Wrong diagnosis, wrong treatment, dead patient.


When you treat only burnout's symptoms in an organization, it is actually worse than this clinical example

The most common symptom of burnout is exhaustion from overwhelm in the work day. The sheer quantity of tasks in direct patient care and documentation are beyond many of the physician's capacity on a daily basis.

The burnout rate is rising exponentially because many doctors are at their Last Straw MomentOne more task might drive them over the edge.


CLICK HERE to Download the Disruptive Physician's Toolkit [ 10 Specific Ways to  Avoid the "Disruptive" Label ]


Which is EXACTLY what the Safety or Satisfaction or Quality Committees give them ... more damn things to do ... every single time

Each and every one of these committees gives the doctors even more things to do when they are already completely overloaded and exhausted. 

Name me a safety or satisfaction committee that does not mandate the front line providers give their pet projects additional time, energy, clicks, documentation, hours wasted in committee meetings and more. The automatic assumption is the doctors can take it, that their bandwidth is completely elastic. You can throw anything at them. They might whine and complain and they always get it done. Right?

organization-leadership-symptoms-physician-burnoutThis constant addition of tasks

  • Worsens the overwhelm and exhaustion
  • Drives ever higher burnout rates
  • Makes the symptoms impossible to eradicate
  • Destroys the culture, driving physician disengagement, resistance to change and disruptive behavior

When you only treat the symptoms, it makes EVERYTHING WORSE

Safety, Quality and Patient Satisfaction are all very important and worthy of meaningful improvement projects
They are just symptoms of underlying physician burnout in most cases

Before you add any additional tasks from these committees to the doctor's daily workload ...

You must seat a Burnout Prevention Working Group and get to work building a Coal Mine Strategy to address burnout and lower stress at the level of the Organization and its Systems of Care DIRECTLY

Treat the TB directly
AND give the cough syrup and oxygen

Treat the Burnout directly
AND optimize safety, quality and satisfaction


If you are at a loss about where to get started ...

Here are four of our most effective organizational burnout prevention tools.

... and you can contact us to discuss your situation in detail using This Form.



How does burnout show up in your organization?
What are you doing to address burnout directly?
How is that working?


Tags: Physician Leadership, stop physician burnout