August 6, 2019 | Susan Napier-Sewell

Can Professional Coaching Alleviate Physician Burnout?

U.S. medical doctors are twice as likely as other workers to experience job burnout

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Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially announced “burnout,” or work-related stress, as a medical condition. If you’ve felt mentally exhausted or emotionally worn out from your job, bingo! You have experienced burnout. The official declaration—labeled “ICD-11 and filed under “Problems associated with employment or unemployment”—happened during a revision of WHO’s handbook for doctors and health insurers, the International Classification of Diseases. 

Burnout: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy”

The burnout experience of U.S. medical doctors can affect their ability to maintain performance as consistently effective physicians. The burnout hit to physicians’ performance is particularly manifested in care quality and responsibility for safe patient administration.

The Mayo Clinic study, published 8/5/2019, focused on reducing physician burnout and increasing well-being

To take a deeper dive into why external professional coaching may be the linchpin in alleviating physician burnout, let’s look at a study published online August 5, 2019. The study, Effect of a Professional Coaching Intervention on the Well-being and Distress of Physicians, in JAMA Internal Medicine, conducted by researchers at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, led by Liselotte Dyrbye, M.D. MHPE, suggests a fresh approach to treating physician burnout: external professional coaching.

The study explores the use of external professional coaching—with a focus on professional goal-setting, work choices, professional relationships, and influencing change at work—to mitigate burnout. The study is the first to specifically investigate the effects of coaching on physician burnout.

Dyrbye and Mayo Clinic colleagues conducted a pilot randomized clinical trial with 88 doctors who were currently practicing in medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics. The researchers studied the effect of individualized coaching on physician well-being as participants in the intervention group (vs. the control group, which received no coaching) experienced six coaching sessions, conducted via phone, with a professional coach as the catalyst.

Results indicate professional counseling may be added to an increasing list of evidence-based tools to support physicians and, in turn, their patients 

Researchers found by the end of the coaching study that high emotional exhaustion among the intervention group after five months decreased by 19.5%, while increasing by 9.8% in the control group. And, absolute rates of overall burnout decreased by 17.1% in the intervention group, while they increased by 4.9% in the control group.

“Coaching is distinct from mentorship and peer support and involves inquiry, encouragement, and accountability to increase self-awareness, motivation, and the capacity to take effective action,” Dyrbye and colleagues wrote. “Coaches do not need to be physicians or directly involved in healthcare. Professional coaching can be tailored to focus on the aspects desired by recipients and can assist individuals in their effort to navigate their professional life, their choices, and the direction of their career. We hypothesized that professional coaching would result in measurable improvements in well-being, job satisfaction, resilience, and fulfillment in physicians and measurable reductions in burnout.” The researchers stated that, “Coaching expands the framework of the types of offerings that organizations can provide to assist physicians both personally and professionally.”

Dyrbye summarized, “We really think it [professional coaching] can improve physicians’ ability to manage their careers and change the detrimental aspects of their work environments, so that ultimately they can do their job well without feeling overwhelmed.”

The Mayo Clinic news network reports:

More research remains to be done on the efficacy of professional coaching when combined with other programs, but these results suggest it may be added to a growing list of evidence-based tools to support physicians and, by extension, the patients they serve.  While useful, professional coaching should be offered in parallel to organizational efforts to improve the practice environment and address the underlying drivers of burnout among physicians.

Additional coauthors of the study are Priscilla Gill, Ed.D., and Daniel Satele, of Mayo Clinic; and Tait Shanafelt, M.D., Stanford University. The study was funded by the Physicians Foundation and Mayo Clinic.

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Current Events, Human Performance, Implementation, Investigations, Operational Excellence, Patient Safety & Healthcare, Process Safety, Quality, Root Cause Analysis, Safety
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