Patient burnout is a prevalent and costly problem in the US healthcare system, but there are ways to minimize its impact.
By Nick Hedges
Clinician burnout has been a widely discussed topic in healthcare in recent years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic added chaos, fear, and heightened personal risk to the list of stressors facing doctors, nurses, therapists, rehab specialists, and other medical professionals on a daily basis.
Far less attention has been paid to patient burnout, an increasingly prevalent and costly condition caused by understaffing, crammed provider appointment schedules, poor communication, brusque treatment, repetitive forms and paperwork, surprise bills, and other inconveniences and indignities.
But a Time magazine article published in late February puts a fresh focus on how poor service from providers, insurers and healthcare facilities is causing patient burnout. “U.S. patients are tired of waiting weeks or months for appointments that are over in minutes,” healthcare writer Jamie Ducharme writes. “They’re tired of providers who treat them like electronic health record entries, rather than people.”
Anyone who has interacted with the US healthcare system knows this is not media hyperbole; indeed, survey data supports Time’s grim description of the reality too many Americans have faced on their patient journeys, even before the pandemic. As Ducharme notes, 43% of Americans in a 2019 Ipsos survey were “unsatisfied with their medical system,” nearly double the 22% of UK residents dissatisfied with their National Health System and far higher than the 26% of Canadians unsatisfied with that nation’s publicly funded health system.
Impact of Patient Burnout on Your Practice
When patients reach the point of burnout, there is an impact on providers. Patients may opt to avoid practices that make them anxious and frustrated because of wait times, poor communication, impersonal treatment, and other factors that contribute to dissatisfaction and burnout. These patients instead may seek out alternate providers.
Worse, these patients may delay care or decide to stop seeking care altogether. A study of patients who put off seeing clinicians in 2020 and 2021 concluded that deferring medical care “can exacerbate existing medical conditions and may increase risk associated with preventable medical conditions.” The inevitable costs of these delays are poorer outcomes and higher costs for our healthcare system.
To ensure their ability to attract and retain patients, it is essential that therapy and rehabilitation practices be able to meet the expectations and needs (both physical and emotional) of healthcare consumers. Here are three specific steps rehab practices can take to reduce patient burnout – and increase patient loyalty.
Create a User-Friendly Experience
While it’s true that one of the major causes of patient burnout is lack of personalized care, another source of frustration for patients is a lack of options for self-service. Imagine you’re trying to schedule an appointment for physical therapy following ankle surgery, but every time you call your rehab practice, you get put on hold. Sometimes you get disconnected and have to dial in again. Except now it’s after 5 p.m. and the office just closed.
Now imagine instead that you are able to use a 24/7 online service to make your appointment. Or that you could access a check-in and registration page online to streamline that cumbersome process and save time when you show up at the therapist’s office. Offering patients the ability to help themselves – rather than having to wait for assistance from a therapy/rehab staffer – is one of the most powerful ways for therapy/rehab practices to provide a user-friendly experience.
Self-service features can be integrated into a well-designed patient portal that also offers enhanced two-way communication and collaboration with practice staff along with multichannel options. A patient portal can allow patients and rehab staff to stay in touch through real-time messaging, including after discharge. Patients also can access educational materials and questionnaires from a digital portal.
Telehealth is another technology that can enhance the patient experience by providing them with easy access to care. Physical, speech, and occupational therapy for individuals or groups can be conducted virtually. For rehab patients who face transportation challenges, telehealth options can be critical to their recovery. Further, rehab practices can improve retention rates by providing telehealth capabilities because patients value the convenience.
Personalize Revenue Cycle Activities
Billing and collections processes can be frustrating and anxiety-producing for therapy/rehab patients. Time-consuming data capture and insurance eligibility checks that seemingly take forever, lack transparency, and too often end with the shock of an unexpectedly large bill understandably leave patients confused and alienated.
Rehab practices can eliminate the friction and delays caused by billing and collections by deploying an integrated revenue cycle management (RCM) platform to simplify these processes for patients and administrative staff. For example, Barrett Family Wellness Center, a pediatric occupational and speech therapy facility in Massachusetts, has implemented an RCM platform that saves patient credit card information and keeps it on file, making the payment process simple for patients and painless for staff. An online bill payment platform allows practices and patients to perform activities such as set up payment plans or auto-charge copays, pay online using a secure patient portal, or send patients mobile-friendly and interactive eStatements. A more efficient RCM platform translates into a more stable revenue stream, more satisfied patients, and more time for therapy/rehab staffers to spend with patients.
Implement Automated Tools
It’s possible to automate many manual, repetitive tasks. Automation can be used to improve patient communications. Send appointment reminders via email or text message. Provide clear directions to the clinic. Your website, social media, local business profiles, and text reminders should make it easy to find directions for patients on-the-go, especially for new patients.
Offer flexible scheduling and check-in options. More and more, patients expect to have options for self-directed scheduling and check-in. Make it easy – and fast – by offering convenient alternatives to scheduling by phone. You can even offer automated scheduling for patients on your waitlist, to fill in the gaps!
Even patient education can be automated. Make sure your patients know the importance of arriving on time and the potential consequences of late arrivals, such as shortened treatment sessions, late fees, or rescheduled appointments. When rehab practices automate routine activities such as scheduling, sending patient reminders and directions to the clinic, they avoid the human error and inefficiencies that can lead to unsatisfactory patient experiences.
By freeing up rehab staff from mundane but necessary tasks, automation improves both the patient and therapist experience.
Staffing shortages will continue to make it difficult for therapy and rehabilitation providers to optimize the patient experience and avoid burnout. The right digital tools can enhance the patient experience by automating tasks and providing self-help capabilities, thus helping to minimize patient burnout.
Nick Hedges is the chief executive officer of Raintree Systems and a 25-year veteran of the technology industry. Raintree is a leading provider of electronic health records (EHR) including patient engagement, scheduling, billing, and practice management, in addition to revenue cycle management (RCM) software solutions for the therapy and rehab industry. It was awarded the 2023 Best in KLAS designation for Outpatient Therapy/Rehab software and services.
Photo 205166717 © Fizkes | Dreamstime.com