Is telemedicine an answer to physician burnout and staffing shortages?

By Bill Siwicki for Healthcare IT News

With the huge initial swell in the use of virtual care in the rearview mirror, many industry experts – from health plans to big tech and practicing clinicians – are considering whether a doubling down on telehealth is just what the doctor ordered for the future of patient care.

Many clinicians are hungry for new opportunities that allow them to continue to serve patients without dealing with long-standing administrative burdens and the aftermath of burnout from COVID-19 in their hospitals, health systems and doctor’s offices.

With too many clinicians continuing to stress that they’ve lost passion in their careers and considering quitting their jobs altogether, experts say change is needed. The healthcare industry can’t afford to lose these highly skilled clinical workers to other industries.

On this note, Healthcare IT News interviewed Dr. Pooja Aysola, a practicing emergency department clinician in Boston and senior director of clinical operations at Wheel, a virtual care company.

She talks about physicians’ newfound familiarity with telehealth and what it means for the future, the possibility of physicians working full time in telemedicine, and how virtual care can help with staffing shortages in healthcare.

Q. With the massive uptake in telemedicine during the past two years of the pandemic, clinicians have grown accustomed to delivering care virtually. What do you think this familiarity means for clinicians moving forward?

A. I hadn’t ever considered a career in virtual care until a few months into the pandemic. I was working in an emergency room in Boston when my shifts were cut after the hospital rolled back elective procedures.

I started working in telemedicine as a temporary solution, but I ended up loving the flexibility to see patients at home and on my own schedule. I also quickly realized I didn’t have to be in the same room as my patients to deliver great care. I can treat conditions such as UTIs through a screen and provide immediate value to my patients.

I’m not alone in my sudden pivot from virtual-care skeptic to virtual-care advocate. Two in three clinicians now say treating patients in virtual only or hybrid care settings best fits their lifestyle, despite a significant lack of interest in telehealth before the pandemic.

I’m hopeful this new trend will allow more clinicians to create career paths that work for them, rather than against them. Clinicians should have the flexibility to decide when they want to work, where they want to work, and how they want to work. If we’re moving toward a hybrid care model, then we should enable clinicians to adopt hybrid careers, if that’s what works best for them.

In medical school, we’re taught there’s only one track you can follow: in-person care. But that’s not the case anymore. I want every doctor and nurse to feel empowered to follow the career path that works best for them.

Q. You seem to suggest that physicians looking for a change, perhaps due to burnout, can switch to telehealth full time. What would a move to virtual care look like for a physician?

A. The past few years have been incredibly tough for clinicians. Burnout, frustration and fatigue are some of the many challenges facing clinicians today. Recent data shows more than half of clinicians have lost passion for their careers because of stress – and close to half believe burnout is the biggest threat to patient care today.

Working in virtual care was a less-than-traditional career path before the pandemic. But now, many clinicians are considering working in virtual care to help combat burnout and increase flexibility.

A move to virtual care will look different for everyone. For example, some clinicians enjoy having a set schedule each week to see patients. Others enjoy having more flexibility, where they can easily sign on after dropping their kids off at school, sign off before running an errand, or even split their time between virtual and in-person care.

At Wheel, more than half of clinicians still work in a brick-and-mortar setting.

One of our clinicians currently is driving around the country with her partner in an RV. She customizes her schedule based on her travel plans that day. She can see patients in the morning and go for a hike in the afternoon, or spend a few hours on the road before pulling over and seeing patients in the afternoon.

Clinicians interested in telehealth should look for opportunities that prioritize and personalize their experience as clinicians. Some specific factors to consider include:

  • What kind of electronic health record does the company use? And was the EHR created with your experience in mind?
  • Do they offer ongoing training? And provide resources on important topics, such as “webside” manner and guidance on managing state licenses?
  • Do they have a robust clinical quality program in place? How do they provide feedback on quality of care?

Q. How can telehealth help with the staffing shortage in healthcare?

A. Our current clinician staffing shortage is a national crisis. And it’s only expected to get worse. According to an Elsevier study, almost half of U.S. clinicians plan to leave their jobs within the next few years.

I’ve seen firsthand the impact shortages are having on clinician burnout and patient care. And I firmly believe this is a crisis that the entire industry must address. Ensuring clinicians feel encouraged to explore careers in virtual care, if that’s what works best for them, is one of many steps to take.

Another way for telehealth to help address staffing shortages is by powering the transition to what we call “virtual-first care.” With virtual-first care, patients can start their care journey with telemedicine.

By leaning on technology, healthcare organizations can more easily triage the patient’s care needs and determine the best care setting – virtual, in-person or hybrid care. This is a more efficient way to approach care delivery while simultaneously increasing access to care.

While telehealth alone is not the only solution, it is one of many steps we can take to help address staffing shortages and help ensure timely patient access to care.

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