In the May/June issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, Christine Sinsky and her colleagues refer to it as “the joy of practice”. “In Search of Joy in Practice: A Report of 23 High-Functioning Primary Care Practices” [identifies the “deep dissatisfaction” experienced by primary care physicians who care for adults (general internists and family physicians) demonstrated by the many reports of high “burnout” rates. The authors relate this to the extraordinary amount of time that physicians spend doing paperwork and administrative functions, and the pressure by employers to generate high numbers of visits; doctors experience this as alienating and not the reason that they became physicians.
“We propose joy in practice as a deliberately provocative concept to describe what we believe is missing in the physician experience of primary care. The concept of physician satisfaction suggests innovations that are limited to tweaking compensation or panel size. If, however, as the literature suggests, physicians seek out the arduous field of medicine, and primary care in particular, as a calling because of their desire to create healing relationships with patients, then interventions must go far deeper. Joy in practice implies a fundamental redesign of the medical encounter to restore the healing relationship of patients with their physicians and health care systems. Joy in practice includes a high level of physician work life satisfaction, a low level of burnout, and a feeling that medical practice is fulfilling.”
The authors go on to list a number of common problems, and solutions that have been found by one or more of the 23 practices that they visited and analyzed in detail. They included:
· Reducing work through pre-visit planning and pre-appointment laboratory tests;
· Adding capacity by sharing the care among the team;
· Eliminating time-consuming documentation through in-visit scribing and assistant order entry;
· Saving time by re-engineering prescription renewal work out of the practice;
· Reducing unnecessary physician work through in-box management;
· Improving team communication through co-location, huddles and team meetings;
· Improving team functioning through systems planning and workflow mapping.
These are all good ideas, and the solutions are sometimes creative, sometimes painfully obvious, and sometimes obstructed by our bizarre health system. One of my favorites, the second, is an example of the latter:
“We observed that team development must often overcome an anti–team culture. Institutional policies (only the doctor can perform order entry), regulatory constraints (only the physician can sign paperwork for hearing aid batteries, meals delivery, or durable medical equipment), technology limitations (electronic health record work flows are designed around physician data entry), and payment policies that only reimburse physician activity constrain teams in their efforts to share the care. An extended care team of a social worker, nutritionist, and pharmacist may be affordable only in practices with external funding or global budgeting.”
Thus is illustrated the tie-in between innovations that can make practice again joyful and the payment reform and re-working of our entire non-system which we desperately need! There is a long way to go; as the authors point out, no single practice has solved every problem. But the linkage is clear – a medical care system designed to reward expensive interventions for a relatively small number of people has created an inappropriate mixture of physicians as well as an incentive for hospitals to focus mainly on such procedures, as it has increased the burden on, and in many cases taken the joy out of, being a primary care physician. It is important to remember that it is not just about the doctors (I try to remind my students and residents, precious as each of them are to themselves and their families and often to me, that ultimately it is not about them). The authors put it this way:
“The current practice model in primary care is unsustainable. We question why young people would devote 11 years preparing for a career during which they will spend a substantial portion of their work days, as well as much of their personal time at nights, on form-filling, box-ticking, and other clerical tasks that do not utilize their training. Likewise, we question whether patients benefit when their physicians spend most of their work effort on such tasks. Primary care physician burnout threatens the quality of patient care, access, and cost-containment within the US health care system.”