A profession that already faced dangerous levels of burnout has suffered even more over the last two years as healthcare professionals (HCPs) fought through a pandemic, lack of access to patients, short supply of critical resources and isolation from peers.
There’s a quick history lesson in this trend. It takes us back to 1970s when psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger introduced the term “burnout.”
He defined it by three main characteristics:
We see those exact responses in physicians today.
In a recent Medscape survey15 of physician burnout and suicide, an emergency room doctor described burnout this way:
“I get angry easily; I dread every shift; I’m frustrated and cynical about my patients. I find myself becoming a doctor and person I don’t want to be.”
Burnout among physicians predates COVID-19 by a long shot but many more are being affected now‒and not hiding it.
“Resiliency may be the key word for 2022. It’s what the entire system is lacking-from physical capital to human expertise.”
According to research16 by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post, more than 60% of frontline healthcare workers report worsened mental health due to the pandemic, with 13% saying they needed mental health medication as a result and 18% reporting seeking out such support but being unable to obtain it. This applies not just to physicians but to all hospital staff. According to Anne Dabrow Woods,17 a critical care NP at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “We’re starting our fourth wave of COVID-19, and nurses are tired. Staff are feeling overworked, unsafe and undervalued.” Some staggering data bears this out—an American Nurses Foundation survey earlier this year demonstrated that 92% of nurses in the United States are considering leaving the profession. Burnout among frontline healthcare workers has received the most media attention, with half a million quitting their jobs in just one month last summer.18 But the same pressures can affect academic researchers, many of them involved in clinical research, and also on the public health community. At the height of the pandemic, almost 70% of academic researchers polled by the Chronicle of Higher Education reported unusual levels of stress—double the pre-pandemic level.19 Many seriously considered changing jobs. And in the fall of 2021, in a survey engaging almost 300 county health departments across the US, the New York Times uncovered a “staggering exodus of personnel,” many of them exhausted and demoralized by abuse and threats20 stemming from their work in vaccine-related campaigns.
In the United States, the government has started to recognize the issue, with the Department of Health and Human Services providing $103 million21 to address burnout. Funds will be divided among hospitals and educational institutions to teach providers about the dangers of burnout and to augment “workforce resiliency programs.” Resiliency may be the key word for 2022. It’s what the entire system is lacking—from physical capital to human expertise. We need flex models for engaging across the system—more agility, more fluidity and more data connectivity across touchpoints to respond in real time to the very human needs of today’s burned-out HCPs. Our critical stakeholders have been changed by these challenging times. Dr. Sachita Shah, an emergency room physician in Seattle, Washington, said, “We don't have enough beds. We have a severe nursing shortage that is not just us. This is countrywide. I think watching people suffocate with COVID-19 all year and then having half of the American public reject the vaccine has been really hard on health care worker resiliency.” As we engage HCPs around the possibilities of science or the realities of care in 2022, we need to recognize the realities of burnout and how it might change a healthcare professionals’ willingness to engage with our teams or their patients. In short, HCP engagement needs a makeover. If smartly designed and executed, it can reduce friction and alleviate burnout.
Burnout amplification isn’t isolated to front-line HCPs in triage roles— it’s challenging all types of healthcare workers and changing the ways they expect to be engaged. Take neurologists as one example. According to new research from AnswerSuite, increased burnout has heightened their need for quick, intuitive, empathy-forward interactions:
70% display a strong “need for affect.”
In other words, they embrace emotion-inducing situations rather than avoid them.
73% are “maximizers.”
This means they expend time and effort to ensure they have solved something as best they can and are giving patients the very best opportunities and outcomes. And they’re exhaustive in this pursuit. So, while attention may be hard to come by, they’re willing to give it freely when it matters most.
80% are guided by their gut and make decisions at an instinct level.
While this decision-making happens quickly and with an emotional lead, neurologists are still measured and rational at the appropriate moment—they exhibit a pattern of post-rationalizing decisions using data and evidence. This makes sense if you consider the noisy digital landscape where we are often reacting, engaging and making decisions in the span of a few seconds. Those actions don’t happen with a logical, rational thought process. They happen quickly and intuitively.
Why does "burnout intensification" matter to the HCP population at large?
Behavioral science tells us people in such circumstances use shortcuts to navigate. This shrinks the amount of attention they can give.
Because today’s healthcare landscape is so complex, pharma brands often mistakenly think their messages must reflect that complexity. As a result, they dial up the data, overuse rational messaging and avoid leading with emotion at all costs. It’s a critical moment for pharma brands to break through and spotlight new patient needs, behaviors required to meet those needs and therapies that can help.
The next challenge ahead: catch-up care
People are getting back into healthcare. Routine healthcare that is.
More than 40% of people22 skipped medical care prior to the vaccines being widely available. The most common miss was preventative care visits.
Now many are creating shopping lists for where to start, both trying to catch up on missed wellness checks and screenings as well as dealing with new healthcare concerns that arose during the year or years away from the practice.
Gone are the days of empty waiting rooms. Many practices report being booked months in advance. Today both commercial and clinical teams are engaging some decidedly busier-than-usual HCPs.
Sign of the times: learning “web-side” manner
Like so many other organizations, medical schools made the shift to remote learning and telemedicine visits in 2020 and 2021. What they learned is what they may just keep learning.
At Kaiser Permanente's Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine they adapted labs, lectures and practicals online.23 Even complex procedures like heart dissections are practiced virtually. Students simply scan a code and pull up a 3-D model to explore or use augmented reality to do more complex procedures on holograms.
At Weill Cornell Medicine,24 the curriculum is focused on the conversation with lessons about the technical side of video visits, but much more time spent on the interactions with patients over screens. Connecting over the camera and showing empathy and thinking about the goals of the total encounter.
The Future of congresses and events: engaging in a hybrid world
Medical events are one source of energy and inspiration for healthcare professionals. They create unique opportunities for learning, connecting and being recognized for expertise and impact—with important lessons for combatting burnout.
Of course, we remember the days of fully in-person events as well as those when every event went fully online or was canceled entirely. 2022 will bring a whole new challenge to conveners: how to host truly hybrid programs that create equally good experiences for people at the event venue and those behind the screen. In best cases, these hybrid programs may even aim to refresh people who are chronically overworked.
Here are a few trends we expect in congress and meeting experiences in 2022:
- More asynchronous
Keynotes and major speeches may bring people together on key conference dates but expert content may not be on the clock. Small groups will be hand-picked for networked watch parties that either offer a preview of a session or create a catch-up moment with moderated discussion to follow.
- More attention-keeping
Content creators and speakers are fighting the draw of multitasking. Whether that’s eyes drifting to a small screen or new tabs being opened on a browser. Look for gaming dynamics that keep people watching (e.g. playing virtual Clue throughout an advisory board —can you guess who did it??) and new approaches to speaking style that intentionally do not verbally reveal everything on the screen or call out specific members of the audience during the talk for comment. The twin benefit of gamification: increased engagement with a quotient of relaxation and relief.
- Mix of life and professional content
Live conferences provide a natural moment for decompression from the everyday pressures of work. So should hybrid ones. We expect to see more "reading corners" where participants can hear a talk on an inspiring non-medical topic and download or receive a book or quick cooking demonstrations that work as well online as off. For dinner meetings, even look for dinner kits to be pre-shipped and cooked together with colleagues and a chef (cameras on!) before the presentation.
- Breaking down the video wall
To democratize the experience, we expect to see hybrid events include more live camera views, showing the audience reacting and interacting as well as quizzes and feedback moments that bring the audiences together. Networking events could include video booths to talk with participants who are joining remotely.
From burnout to balance: three questions for commercial activation teams
What facet of the brand’s value proposition and which key messages are the most relevant, could be delivered in an emotion-forward way and fit within the shortcuts HCPs are tracking?
How can we leverage context cues (channel, environment, social circles, etc.) to influence easy decision making?
What simple actions will cultivate resilience and sustain it, thereby reducing friction?