The crisis of physician burnout and the promise of technology

“I am no longer a physician. I have become the typist.”

This is a sentiment echoing in the hallways of medical practices across the nation. This transformation encapsulates the growing disillusionment among doctors, particularly those in primary care. As a resident physician in family medicine, I am acutely aware of the escalating rates of physician burnout, exacerbated by the expectation to see between 18 and 24 patients daily. One must ask: Why does it have to be this way?

The burden of administrative work

Physicians now allocate nearly half their work hours—approximately 22.5 hours per week—to navigating electronic health records (EHRs). This shift away from direct patient care not only fuels burnout but also erodes both patient and provider satisfaction. According to the American Medical Association, burnout symptoms were reported by 63 percent of physicians at the end of 2021, a significant increase from 42 percent in 2018. This uptick was likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also led to rising rates of depression, anxiety, and even suicide among health care providers.

The exodus from medicine

The administrative burden is contributing to an alarming exodus from the medical field. An estimated 117,000 physicians left the profession between Q1 2020 and Q4 2021. In California alone, the shortage is so acute that an additional 4,700 primary care physicians would be needed to bridge the gap. This shortage has led to an unsustainable workload for existing physicians, often requiring them to work additional hours for unpaid administrative tasks.

The promise of augmented intelligence

As we grapple with these challenges, it’s crucial to explore how technological advancements, particularly in augmented intelligence (AI), could alleviate this crisis. AI has the potential to revolutionize the patient-provider relationship by automating administrative tasks, thus allowing physicians to refocus on the core of medicine: empathetic patient care. AI can allow providers to refocus on their patients, restoring the art of medicine through deep empathy, attentive listening, and compassionate care

Dr. Eric Topol, in his seminal book Deep Medicine, argues that AI can bring humanism back into the medical field. One promising innovation is the AI scribe, a tool designed to handle charting and documentation. While there are hurdles to overcome, such as ensuring HIPAA compliance, ongoing developments in AI technology are promising.

The road ahead

As we look to the future, it’s imperative to leverage technological advancements to restore the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship. By doing so, we can not only mitigate burnout but also elevate the quality of health care, bringing back the human connection that is so vital to the practice of medicine.

Yimdriuska Magan Mendoza is a family medicine resident.

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