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  • Writer's pictureBruce Cummings

Another Cost of Inadequate Action on Clinician Burnout

To the already long list of previously known consequences associated with physician burnout — diminished patient satisfaction, heightened risk of adverse safety events, compromised team effectiveness, greater likelihood of turnover — add to the list an emerging phenomenon: unionization by providers.

Healthcare Providers Turning to Unions

Allina, the large Minnesota and Wisconsin-based health system, is the latest but will not be the last healthcare organization to find its employed providers turning to a union for relief from burnout. Specifically, some 400 Allina primary care physicians have voted to join SEIU. Another 150 nurse practitioners and physician assistants are also likely to join. Why would physicians, the very epitome of professional autonomy, decide to turn to a union to obtain a renewed sense of agency?

According to a New York Times story (October 13), “doctors complained that chronic understaffing was leading to burnout and compromising patient safety.” Dr. Cora Walsh, a family physician involved with organizing her fellow physicians complained that “the (staffing) shortages were increasing backlogs and the risk of mistakes”. Dr. Matt Hoffman added “we’re not able to tell them (managers) what we need day to day”.

The article by reporter Noam Scheiber goes on to say, “doctors and other clinicians within the Allina system have quit or scaled back their hours, citing moral injury — a sense that they couldn’t perform their jobs in accordance with their values.”

3 Symptoms of Clinician and Physician Burnout Recognized

Those of us involved in efforts to reduce clinician burnout will immediately recognize the 3 symptoms of burnout in the preceding comments:

  • exhaustion

  • cynicism

  • inefficacy

But note, too, the reference to a perceived disconnect between one’s professional judgments and values in relation to the organization’s. Misaligned or conflicting values is one of the major drivers of clinician burnout. Senior leaders are in a unique position to address and reconcile apparent values misalignment if/when they arise. But if the underlying reasons for that misalignment aren’t corrected by the c-suite — in Alina’s case, the claim of chronic staffing shortages among required support personnel — one will not only see more burnout among knowledge workers but also find them seeking relief by reaching out to a third party. This gambit by Allina providers may or may not lead to improved staff recruitment and retention practices (count me as a skeptic) but it will almost certainly create additional —and avoidable — organizational cost, complexity and strain.

Transform Your Workplace

Organizational Wellbeing Solutions was formed to enable senior leaders to identify the specific drivers of clinician burnout in their organization; and to support those leaders in designing and executing a comprehensive plan to stop clinician burnout, increase retention, and improve operating results. Let us help you help your organization and its clinicians.

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