Wednesday, November 6, 2019

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Systems Model of Medical Clinician Burnout, Including Culture Aspects

Source: Medical Academic S. Africa
We have been posting about preventable harm to health care patients, emphasizing how improved organizational mental models and attention to cultural attributes might reduce the incidence of such harm.  A new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee report* looks at one likely contributor to the patient harm problem: clinician burnout.**  The NASEM committee purports to use a systems model to analyze burnout and develop strategies for reducing burnout while fostering professional well-being and enhancing patient care.  This post summarizes the 300+ page report and offers our perspective on it.

The Burnout Problem and the Systems Model 

Clinician burnout is caused by stressors in the work environment; burnout can lead to behavioral and health issues for clinicians, clinicians prematurely leaving the healthcare field, and poorer treatment and outcomes for patients.  This widespread problem requires a “systemic approach to burnout that focuses on the structure, organization, and culture of health care.” (p. 3)

The NASEM committee’s systems model has three levels: frontline care delivery, the health care organization, and the external environment.  Frontline care delivery is the environment in which care is provided.  The health care organization includes the organizational culture, payment and reward systems, processes for managing human capital and human resources, the leadership and management style, and organizational policies. The external environment includes political, market, professional, and societal factors.

All three levels contribute to an individual clinician’s work environment, and ultimately boil down to a set of job demands and job resources for the clinician.


The report identifies multiple factors that need to be considered when developing interventions, including organizational values and leadership; a work system that provides adequate resources, facilitates team work, collaboration, communication, and professionalism; and an implementation approach that builds a learning organization, reward systems that align with organizational values, nurtures organizational culture, and uses human-centered design processes. (p. 7)

The report presents six recommendations for reducing clinician burnout and fostering professional well-being:

1. Create positive work environments,
2. Create positive learning environments,
3. Reduce administrative burdens,
4. Optimize the use of health information technologies,
5. Provide support to clinicians to prevent and alleviate burnout, and foster professional well-being, and
6. Invest in research on clinician professional well-being.

Our Perspective

We’ll ask and answer a few questions about this report.

Did the committee design an actual and satisfactory systems model?

We have promoted systems thinking since the inception of Safetymatters so we have some clear notions of what should be included in a systems model.  We see both positives and missing pieces in the NASEM committee’s approach.***

On the plus side, the tri-level model provides a useful and clear depiction of the health care system and leads naturally to an image of the work world each clinician faces.   We believe a model should address certain organizational realities—goal conflict, decision making, and compensation—and this model is minimally satisfactory in these areas.  A clinician’s potential goal conflicts, primarily maintaining a patient focus while satisfying the organization’s quality measures, managing limited resources, achieving economic goals, and complying with regulations, is mentioned once. (p. 54)  Decision making (DM) specifics are discussed in several areas, including evidenced-based DM (p. 25), the patient’s role in DM (p. 53), the burnout threat when clinicians lack input to DM (p. 101), the importance of participatory DM (pp. 134, 157, 288), and information technology as a contributor to DM (p. 201).  Compensation, which includes incentives, should align with organizational values (pp. 10, 278, 288), and should not be a stressor on the individual (p. 153).  Non-financial incentives such as awards and recognition are not mentioned.

On the downside, the model is static and two-dimensional.  The interrelationships and dynamics among model components are not discussed at all.  For example, the importance of trust in management is mentioned (p. 132) but the dynamics of trust are not discussed.  In our experience, “trust” is a multivariate function of, among other things, management’s decisions, follow-through, promise keeping, role modeling, and support of subordinates—all integrated over time.  In addition, model components feed back into one another, both positively and negatively.  In the report, the use of feedback is limited to clinicians’ experiences being fed back to the work designers (pp. 6, 82), continuous learning and improvement in the overall system (pp. 30, 47, 51, 157), and individual work performance recognition (pp. 103, 148).  It is the system dynamics that create homeostasis, fluctuations, and all levels of performance from superior to failure.

Does culture play an appropriate role in the model and recommendations?

We know that organizational culture affects performance.  And culture is mentioned throughout this report as a system component with the implication that it is an important factor, but it is not defined until a third of the way through the report.****  The NASEM committee apparently assumes everyone knows what culture is, and that’s a problem because groups, even in the same field, often do not share a common definition of culture.

But the lack of a definition doesn’t stop the authors from hanging all sorts of attributes on the culture tree.  For example, the recommendation details include “Nurture (establish and sustain) organizational culture that supports change management, psychological safety, vulnerability, and peer support.” (p. 7)  This is mostly related to getting clinicians to recognize their own burnout and seek help, and removing the social stigma associated with getting help.  There are a lot of moving parts in this recommendation, not the least of which is overcoming the long-held cultural ideal of the physician as a tough, all-knowing, powerful authority figure. 

Teamwork and participatory decision making are promoted (pp. 10, 51) but this can be a major change for organizations that traditionally have strong silos and value adherence to established procedures and protocols. 

There are bromides sprinkled through the report.  For example, “Leadership, policy, culture, and incentives are aligned at all system levels to achieve quality aims and promote integrity, stewardship, and accountability.” (p. 25)  That sounds worthy but is a huge task to specify and implement.  Same with calling for a culture of continuous learning and improvement, or in the committee’s words a “Leadership-instilled culture of learning—is stewarded by leadership committed to a culture of teamwork, collaboration, and adaptability in support of continuous learning as a core aim” (p. 51)

Are the recommendations useful?

We hope so.  We are not behavioral scientists but the recommendations appear to represent sensible actions.  They may help and probably won’t hurt—unless a health care organization makes promises that it cannot or will not keep.  That said, the recommendations are pretty vanilla and the NASEM committee cannot be accused of going out on any limbs.

Bottom line: Clinician burnout undoubtedly has a negative impact on patient care and outcomes.  Anything that can reduce burnout will improve the performance of the health care system.  However, this report does not appreciate the totality of cultural change required to implement the modest recommendations.

*  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout: A Systems Approach to Professional Well-Being,” (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2019). 

**  “Burnout is a syndrome characterized by high emotional exhaustion, high depersonalization (i.e., cynicism), and a low sense of personal accomplishment from work.” (p. 1)  “Clinician burnout is associated with an increased risk of patient safety incidents . . .” (p. 2)

***  As an aside, the word “systems” is mentioned over 700 times in the report.

****  “Organizational culture is defined by the fundamental artifacts, values, beliefs, and assumptions held by employees of an organization (Schein, 1992). An organization’s culture is manifested in its actions (e.g., decisions, resource allocation) and relayed through organizational structure, focus, mission and value alignment, and leadership behaviors” (p. 99)  This is good but it should have been presented earlier in the report.