How to proactively tackle physician burnout: Acadia Healthcare CMO Dr. Michael Genovese weighs in

Research from the American Medical Association, Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic and Stanford (Calif.) University School of Medicine found that burnout among U.S. physicians improved between 2014 and 2017, but the rate of burnout remains high.

Franklin, Tenn.-based Acadia Healthcare CMO Michael Genovese, MD, shared his insights on physician burnout with Becker's ASC Review.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: What are some actions health systems and physicians themselves can take to combat burnout?

Dr. Michael Genovese: The most effective way to combat physician burnout is having physicians practice the things we often tell our patients and their caregivers to do: take care of themselves. This means making healthy lifestyle adjustments such as exercising a minimum of 30 minutes per day, eating right and practicing self-care. Additionally, physicians should be encouraged to seek medical care — preventive or otherwise — as needed. This includes mental health care, like depression treatment.

Health system leaders can help physicians tackle burnout by incentivizing these healthy behaviors, and by talking openly about the issue to help physicians recognize early warning signs. Available resources and recommended treatment protocols should be readily accessible and whenever possible, financial incentives encouraging the use of mental health days to alleviate job-related stresses should be considered.

Q: Why is there such a stigma around mental health in healthcare? What are some ways to reduce it?

MG: The stigma around mental health is pervasive, perhaps most surprisingly in the healthcare industry itself. There are several reasons for this, but it primarily stems from a lack of parity between physical and mental health issues. One is seen as more important and the other is often dismissed as a sign of weakness. The brain is an organ of the body, and it is a critical piece of our overall health. We should not treat physical and mental health issues as though they are separate. Since mental health conditions are not traditionally seen as the diseases they are, a recurring dialogue grounded in misunderstanding and mischaracterization remains.

To reduce the stigma around mental health in the industry, we first must stop behaviors that perpetuate it, such as treating physicians who seek support in the form of counseling or other mental healthcare like they have a scarlet letter on their record. The fear of losing their license for accessing the care they need can keep a provider from asking for help in the first place. Establishing a network where doctors can receive confidential, nonpunitive treatment would allow them to seek help without fear of retribution, and resume practice or residency training when conditions allow.

Q: Do you see the burnout issue changing in the next five to 10 years — either improving, getting worse or something else? Why?

MG: We're seeing indications that physician burnout may be lessening, but we are far from the issue being resolved. Change does not happen overnight, and we as providers and leaders in the healthcare industry need to commit to sustainable, long-term solutions. There must be a cultural shift, and often, those at the top can effectuate change by creating policies, providing resources and changing the dialogue around mental health — all things that will reduce and possibly eliminate burnout in the future.

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