Clinically Speaking: Health Care Provider Burnout and Staff Shortages

COVID-19 has created health care worker burnout and exacerbated a staff shortage that existed even before the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers have been exposing themselves and their loved ones to risks by showing up to work every day. This is just one factor escalating burnout among these professionals. There was a health care worker shortage even before the pandemic and there are no signs of it slowing down two years later. In fact, the World Health Organization projects a shortfall of 18 million health care workers by 2030.

Provider burnout and the impact on patients

There are a few reasons for the increase in burnout among physicians and other health care workers.

Before the pandemic in 2017, 44% of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout, including feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased negativism or cynicism related to one's job and reduced professional efficacy. That only worsened during the pandemic due to increased expectations from our health care delivery system. The stress of working during the pandemic caused health care workers to quit their jobs, leaving a staff shortage across the country. For those who remain, their capacity is stretched thin as they try to accommodate more patients with less support. A survey from the American Medical Association reports that 40% of nurses and 20% of physicians plan to leave the health care industry within the next two years.

While the early days of the pandemic brought appreciation for front-line workers, trust in them is trending down, and threats to their jobs, families and safety are increasing. In a 2021 survey, eight out of 10 health care workers reported experiencing some type of workforce violence over the previous year. As efforts to control the pandemic became politicized, providers felt unsupported and disbelieved and mistrust grew even as they continued their front-line efforts to save lives.

Patients are feeling the strain from provider burnout and the resulting health care worker shortage, such as trouble accessing care, long lead times for appointments and long waits at providers offices to see their doctors. In many counties across the U.S., patients face a lack of primary care providers and experience a lower quality of care due to providers’ time constraints.

How plan sponsors can help with provider burnout

First, plan sponsors should partner with organizations that have the technology and data-driven capabilities to remove barriers to care and enable physicians to make better clinical and cost-effective decisions. However, it’s critical that any new technology fits into existing workflows to simplify the process and reduce administrative burden without adding steps in the care delivery process.

Second, they should look for comprehensive behavioral health solutions that put the member first and ensure personalized care with guaranteed results. Encourage open lines of communication and help de-stigmatize mental and behavioral health by equipping health care workers with tools and resources that give them the support they need and deserve.

Third, they should find ways to systematize care and maximize the value of an in-person physician visit:

  • Offer access to alternative sites of care, like a virtual provider network or on-site care at members’ workplaces.
  • Make access to care convenient for each member’s lifestyle, whether that’s a virtual care option that easily fits into their day-to-day activities, or options outside of regular provider office times.
  • Encourage patients to get recommended preventive care screenings such as a mammography, home colorectal cancer test or diabetes test before their provider visit so the doctor and patient can make the most of their time together.

COVID-19 has transformed many aspects of our day-to-day lives and accelerated trends that the industry was seeing pre-pandemic. By addressing some of these concerns now, like health care worker burnout and shortages, plan sponsors can continue to provide patients access to the quality care that they need, while preventing negative health outcomes and downstream costs.

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