Healthcare executives can do a lot to support their physicians on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis. Experts recommend the following strategies for helping physicians manage the physical, emotional and financial toll of battling the virus.
Implement virtual town hall meetings so community-based physicians can stay connected. Being visible can be extremely difficult in a crisis like the pandemic, when healthcare executives need to communicate with some physicians who are working remotely. At Memorial Hospital, Bradley (Brad) S. Talbert, FACHE, president and CEO, worked with the vice president of physician and provider relations to implement regular, virtual town hall meetings for physicians. He believes these meetings help physician practices stay informed and connected to the hospital when they are especially hungry for information and guidance on managing patients that may be infected with COVID-19.
Make sure your medical staff feels protected. Beyond providing personal protective equipment for staff, Memorial Hospital screens every patient, relative, staff member and vendor who comes into the hospital each day. They take each individual’s temperature and check for shortness of breath and cough.
Anticipate burnout. “I’m very concerned about my physician and other health professional colleagues during this time,” says Christine A. Sinsky, MD, a general internist and vice president of professional satisfaction at the American Medical Association. “The stress level is going to be nearly unprecedented, and yet this is also a time where meaning and purpose become more clear.”
Beyond the personal toll on physicians, burnout carries significant financial costs to organizations. Sinsky co-authored an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine that estimates the annual economic cost of burnout at $7,600 per employed physician. Turnover and reduced clinical hours are to blame for the costs.
During the pandemic, Sinsky recommends that leaders find ways to ease some of the well-intended regulations that make it harder for physicians to provide care. She also suggests using a one of the free simple surveys that the AMA developed to assess the monthly toll of COVID-19 on their physician workforce.
The AMA also has recommended several strategies that leaders can use to care for caregivers and has guidance for leaders on becoming a resilient organization during the pandemic.
Find creative payment solutions. Many physicians who are paid on a strictly relative value unit basis may face severe financial risks from canceled visits for non-COVID-19 patients. Some organizations have come up with creative strategies to address this, Sinsky says. For example, one organization has a policy that allows clinicians who stay at home to be paid at their full rate if they can care for the children of two other clinicians who are working. At-home clinicians also may be able to get paid for providing inbox support for physicians who are still going to the clinic or hospital.
While their financial challenges are real, many physicians are simply too busy juggling patient care at the present time. “People are not worrying about RVUs right now,” says Thomas H. Lee, MD, CMO, Press Ganey. “They’re worrying about patients.” Lee, who is also a primary care doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, switched to seeing patients virtually back in March and believes that trend will continue in the months ahead. As such, leaders should make sure they have the telemedicine tools in place to support virtual visits.
Acknowledge the sacrifices. Recognizing the grueling work, financial hardships and potential health risks for physicians and other staff can help prevent them from feeling abandoned by hospital leaders.
“Everybody is spending more time on things now and making sacrifices,” says H. Clifton “Clif” Knight, MD, CPE, FAAFP, senior vice president of education at the American Academy of Family Physicians, “but people still want to know that what they’re doing is noticed, acknowledged and appreciated.”
Laura Hegwer is a freelance writer and editor based in Lake Bluff, Ill.