By Timothy R. Zoph
Clinicians understand that compassionate care leads to the best patient and family outcomes. It’s too bad their industry doesn’t show them the same consideration.
Providing care, whether as a clinician or staff member, is difficult under the best circumstances. And today’s healthcare environment is far from ideal circumstances. The unprecedented demands of COVID-19 exposed how overburdened our healthcare system is and how much it depends on the individual herculean efforts of stressed-out physicians, nurses, technicians, and others. Healthcare was in trouble before the pandemic; it’s in critical condition now.
It’s time for the industry to show caregivers the same compassion that they show patients. I’m not talking about traditional forms of recognition but a wholesale change in returning clinicians to the practice of medicine. Our current situation demands something more fundamental and transformative. The best way to treat caregivers compassionately is to make their jobs easier so that they can perform the work they were trained to do and deliver the desired outcomes. Enable technology to work for them. And by doing so, create the space for them to engage with patients, understand their needs, and bring personalization back to the caregiving process.
And we do that by asking them to do less, not more. That’s a radical concept in healthcare, which almost always demands more of caregivers, and never more so than during the pandemic. We praise workers for “stepping up” and going “above and beyond,” but that isn’t a solution – it’s a stopgap measure that ultimately takes its toll on employees and the care they deliver to patients.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Why Bosses Should Ask Employees to Do Less – Not More,” the author argues that addition is too often the default solution for solving workplace challenges: more taskforces, more meetings, more paperwork, training, and processes. But this doesn’t solve problems; it only exacerbates them by spreading existing resources too thin and placing too great a demand on employees. This is a particularly dangerous mindset in healthcare where lives, not quarterly earnings, are at stake.
Instead, the article states that the solution is to subtract and eliminate the unnecessary, counterproductive, and obsolete: “Subtraction clears our minds and gives us time to focus on what counts. It sets the stage for creative work, giving us the space to fail, fret, discuss, argue about and experiment with seemingly crazy ideas. These ideas can transform a company and make employees happier and more productive.”
Of course, fundamental healthcare tasks cannot be “subtracted” in the sense that a manufacturer might drop a poor-selling product line. Patient care depends on the performance of complex and simple tasks alike.
But many of the tasks can be “subtracted” from daily workloads by automating them so that they require little or no effort on the part of caregivers. Roles and processes may be reimagined to work smarter and scale to provide greater and more convenient access for patients. Technology can be designed with the core principle of experience first and technology second, ensuring that users agree that “the technology works for me.”
Caregivers are understandably skeptical of technological solutions as our decade-long automation of electronic records has resulted in tethering clinicians to technology. They’ve all had the experience of struggling with a new technology or add-on feature that promises to make everything easier, smoother, and faster, but does just the opposite. That’s why it’s so crucial that next-generation technology be designed to achieve the goals that genuinely enable caregivers to do what they do best – care for patients.
Below are three must-have goals:
- 1. Exceptional experiences: All technology and systems must be designed with the user and patient experience in mind. Designers should start with the optimal experience and reverse-engineer the tech. That experience should accomplish three goals:
> It should free the way for clinicians, patients, and families to engage in caregiving by eliminating manual tasks.
> It should simplify each step of the caregiving journey, reducing technology interactions to the minimum necessary and high-impact moments.
> It should be designed so that each care team member, including patients and their families, is well-informed and self-reliant.
2. Rigorous automation: Reduce the technology burden on caregivers. Achieve task-level automation wherever possible, aggressively reducing the administrative burden and including the documentation and navigation of care. Build a proactive and anticipatory process. What can be known should be known and embedded into the workflow.
3.Continuous Personalization: Users’ experience with technology should be personalized to the most individual level possible. Preferences and choices should be captured and engineered. Users should be provided with tailored or domain-specific instruction and onboarding, ongoing training, and best practices taught by their peers. Ensure that their competency grows over time, technology meets their needs and becomes an integral part of their daily tasks, so much so that they can’t imagine doing their jobs without it. Any upgrades or changes to the system should be handled similarly.
The healthcare industry has a moral obligation to take care of its people for their sake and the patients they care for. We’re already seeing the fallout that happens when that doesn’t occur. In 2022 alone, more than 1.7 million people have quit their healthcare jobs – equivalent to almost 3% of the healthcare workforce each month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More will follow. According to an Elsevier 2022 “Clinician of the Future” report:
- 26.6% of clinicians globally say well-being support is a priority.
- 74% say there will be a shortage of nurses; 88% say there will be a shortage of doctors.
- While 85% of clinicians said they enjoy their jobs, only 57% said they had a good work-life balance.
Those who remain on the job cannot do their best under the current conditions. They should be practicing at the top of their licenses and supported by technology, not burdened by its contemporary design. Specifically, tasks than can be automated need to be automated; Voice, video, and ambient capture can eliminate clinician data entry (why are we still using keyboards?); and AI/machine learning promises more predictive, informed decision-making, thus ceasing the never-ending navigation or searching for relevant information.
Caregivers do what they do because they are compassionate people who want to help others. If we expect them to remain on the job, and if we want the industry to continue to attract new workers, we must restore the joy and sense of fulfillment that makes healthcare a calling and not just a job.
It’s time to care for the caregivers.
Timothy R. Zoph, CHCIO, is a healthcare industry consultant and former CIO of Northwestern Medicine.