The E.M.R. is now “conveniently available” to log into from home. Many of my colleagues devote their weekends and evenings to the spillover work. They feel they can’t sign off until they’ve documented all the critical details of their patients’ complex medical histories, followed up on all the test results, sorted out all the medication inconsistencies, and responded to all the calls and messages from patients. This does not even include the hours of compliance modules, annual mandates and administrative requirements that they are expected to complete “between patients.”
For most doctors and nurses, it is unthinkable to walk away without completing your work because dropping the ball could endanger your patients. I stop short of accusing the system of drawing up a premeditated business plan to manipulate medical professionalism into free labor. Rather, I see it as a result of administrative creep. One additional task after another is piled onto the clinical staff members, who can’t — and won’t — say no. Patients keep getting their medications and their surgeries and their office visits. From an administrative perspective, all seems to be purring along just fine.
But it’s not fine. This month the World Health Organization recognized the serious effects of burnout from chronic workplace stress. Burnout levels among doctors are at new highs, far worse than among the general population, and increasing relentlessly. Burnout among nurses is similarly rising and is highest among those on the front line of patient care. Doctors and nurses commit suicide at higher rates than in almost any other profession. Higher levels of burnout are also associated with more medical errors and compromised patient safety.
This status quo is not sustainable — not for medical professionals and not for our patients.
Mission statements for health care systems and hospitals are replete with terms like “excellence,” “high-quality” and “commitment.” While these may sound like Madison Avenue buzzwords on a slick brochure, they represent the core values of the people who labor in these institutions. Health care is by no means perfect, but what good exists is because of individuals who strive to do the right thing.
It is this very ethic that is being exploited every day to keep the enterprise afloat.
The health care system needs to be restructured to reflect the realities of patient care. From 1975 to 2010, the number of health care administrators increased 3,200 percent. There are now roughly 10 administrators for every doctor. If we converted even half of those salary lines to additional nurses and doctors, we might have enough clinical staff members to handle the work. Health care is about taking care of patients, not paperwork.
Those at the top need to think about the ramifications of their decisions. Counting on nurses and doctors to suck it up because you know they won’t walk away from their patients is not just bad strategy. It’s bad medicine.