More thoughts about hospitalist burnout

Increasing attention, resources directed at wellness initiatives


I wrote about physician burnout and well-being in the July 2017 version of this column, and am still thinking a great deal about those issues. In the past 6 months, I can’t identify anything that strikes me as a real breakthrough in addressing these issues. However, the ever-increasing attention and resources directed at physician burnout and wellness, on both a local and national level, strike me as reason for cautious optimism.

A chief wellness officer

In summer 2017, Stanford University created a new physician executive role called chief wellness officer (CWO). As far as I am aware, this is the first such position connected with a hospital or medical school. It will be interesting to see if other organizations create similar positions, although I suspect that in places where it is explicitly recognized as a priority, responsibility for this work will be one of the many duties of a chief medical officer or other such executive, and not a position devoted solely to wellness. Interestingly, an Internet search revealed that some non–health care businesses have executive positions with that title, though the role seems focused more on physical health – as in exercise and smoking cessation – than emotional well-being and burnout.

According to a statement on the Stanford Medicine website, the new CWO will work with colleagues to continue “building on its innovative WellMD Center , which was established in 2016. The center has engaged more than 200 physicians through programs focusing on peer support, stress reduction, and ways to cultivate compassion and resilience, as well as a literature and a dinner series in which physicians explore the challenges and rewards of being a doctor. The center also aims to relieve some of the burden on physicians by improving efficiency and simplifying workplace systems, such as electronic medical records.”

A national conference

Over the last 2 or 3 years many, if not most, physician conferences, including the SHM annual conference, have added some content around physician burnout and well-being. But for the first time I’m aware of, an entire conference, the American Conference on Physician Health, addressed these topics in San Francisco in October 2017, and attracted 425 attendees along with an all-star faculty. I couldn’t attend myself, but found a reporter’s summary informative and I recommend it.

While the summary didn’t suggest the conference provided a cure or simple path to improvement, I’m encouraged that the topic has attracted the attention of some pretty smart people. If there is a second edition of this conference, I’ll try hard to attend.

Worthwhile web resources

The home page of Stanford’s WellMD Center provides a continuously updated list of recent research publications on physician health and links to many other resources, and is worth bookmarking.

Another great educational resource for physician wellness is the AMA’s STEPS Forward, a site devoted to practice improvement that provides guidance on patient care, work flow and process, leading change, technology and finance, as well as professional well-being. Of the five separate education modules in the latter category, I found the one on “Preventing Physician Burnout” especially informative. The site is free, doesn’t require an AMA membership, and can provide CME credit.

Making a difference locally: Individuals

Surveys, research, and the experience of experts available via the above resources and others are very valuable, but may be hard to translate into action for you and your fellow local caregivers. My sense is that many hospitalists address their own work-related distress by simply working less in total – reducing their full-time equivalents. That may be the most tangible and accessible intervention, and undeniably the right thing to do in some cases. But it isn’t an ideal approach for our field, which faces chronic staffing shortages. And it doesn’t do anything to change the average level of distress of a day of work. I worry that many people will find disappointment if working fewer shifts is their only burnout mitigation strategy.

Dr. John Nelson, cofounder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is codirector for SHM’s practice management courses.
Dr. John Nelson

Ensuring that you have some work-related interest outside of direct patient care, such as being the local electronic health record expert, or even the person leading formation of a support committee, can be really valuable. I first addressed this topic in the June 2011 issue of The Hospitalist, and there is a long list of things to consider: mindfulness, practicing “ self-compassion ,” cultivating deeper social connections in and out of the workplace, etc. Ultimately, each of us will have to choose our own path, and for some that should include professional help, e.g., from a mental health care provider.

But as a colleague once put it, a focus on changing ourselves is akin to just learning to take a punch better. A worthwhile endeavor, but it’s also necessary to try to decrease the number of punches thrown our way.

Making a difference locally: Medical staff

I’m part of the Provider Support Committee at my hospital, and I have concluded that nearly every hospital should have a group like this. Our own committee was modeled after the support committee at a hospital five miles away, and both groups see value in collaborating in our efforts. In fact, a person from each hospital’s committee serves on the committee at the other hospital.

These committees have popped up in other institutions, and many have been at it longer than at my hospital. But they all seem to share a mission of developing and implementing programs to position caregivers to thrive in their work, increase resilience, and reduce their risk of burnout. Some interventions are focused on making changes to an EHR, work schedules, work flows, or even staffing levels (i.e., reducing the “number of punches”). Other efforts are directed toward establishing groups that support personal reflection and/or social connections among providers.

A review of activities undertaken by seven different organizations is available at the AMA STEPS forward Preventing Physician Burnout website (click on “STEPS in practice.”)

Dr. Nelson has had a career in clinical practice as a hospitalist starting in 1988. He is cofounder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is codirector for SHM’s practice management courses. Contact him at

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