Faced with extremely difficult decisions to make day in and day out, long and demanding work schedules, and limited human resources to help, physicians run a high risk for burnout. Thankfully, digital health technology developments could mean the use of artificial intelligence as an eventual solution for physician burnout.
A major concern in healthcare practice is physician burnout. Reports of burnout are on the rise, with about half of physicians demonstrating symptoms. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) explores the issue at length and notes three primary warning signs:
- Exhaustion: Physicians suffering from burnout are often "running on empty" and can find little energy in reserves for the day-to-day demands of their jobs.
- Depersonalization: Physicians who find themselves turning to sarcasm, frequently venting about patients, and otherwise finding little room for compassion and empathy have often turned to depersonalization as a way to combat emotional fatigue.
- Lack of efficacy: Burnout can make physicians lose sight of their purpose and contribution to the field. They can be consumed by a sense of apathy and fatalism about their work.
Consequences For the Physician-Patient Relationship
It should go without saying that each of these symptoms can have far-reaching negative impacts on physician-patient relationships and the care patients receive. Burnout also comes with safety risks. As Patient Safety Network reports, those suffering from burnout are more likely to have "impaired attention, memory, and executive function that decrease their recall and attention to detail." All of these factors contribute to a higher prevalence of accidents and mistakes in a field where they can literally be the difference between life and death.
The Role AI Can Play as a Solution for Physician Burnout
With the clear potential impact on safety, patient care, and patient-physician relationships on the line, the need to address physician burnout is widely recognized, and now artificial intelligence may be providing a solution. A new wave of technological advancements aims (directly and indirectly) to address the issues that make burnout such a prevalent concern for physicians and reverse some of the negative trends.
The Use of AI in Health Data Management
One way that AI promises a solution for physician burnout is by lightening the load of data management. Just as virtual assistants have made day-to-day life easier by letting consumers use voice-to-text and to give voice commands to pull up information hands-free, healthcare-specific virtual assistants are primed to make physicians' workflow smoother and less intrusive.
Physicians could enter data into electronic databases without having to touch a keyboard and could ask for charts and lab results to be pulled up automatically with a single voice command.
Healthcare AI in Diagnosis and Treatment
The AAFP report noted that the emotional toll of working with patients who are often struggling in their own lives is one of the primary drivers behind physician burnout. This stress is increased when diagnosis and treatment are difficult to ascertain.
One way that AI could offer a solution for physician burnout and mitigate the emotional work for physicians is by providing interactive bots to analyze patients' responses and provide feedback on their likely health conditions and risks. The technology would work through a combination of voice analysis, facial feature readings, and biometric screenings. The resulting data could alleviate some of the pressure on physicians and provide them with the opportunity to approach a patient with more information and less uncertainty.
AI-Enabled Decision Support
Since one of the primary symptoms of burnout is a decrease in perceived efficacy, it is important to address it by empowering physicians to recognize their own value and contributions within their field and to their individual patients. This is another area where AI has promising potential.
Working in tandem with software algorithms, physicians can have AI-enabled decision support. By making their plans in the context of a network of data, physicians can work with confidence that they are making informed, meaningful decisions while also recognizing how their own contributions are becoming data points that will likewise inform other physicians' decisions.
In other words, AI has the potential to demonstrate and increase the interconnectedness of medical knowledge, creating a community of support and experience.
Reconnecting Physicians to Enjoyment in Their Careers
Physicians are tasked with incredibly demanding jobs and are often facing patients who are at their most vulnerable. The future of healthcare depends on creating an environment where physicians are able to do their jobs well without suffering the negative consequences of burnout, and artificial intelligence is one possible solution for physician burnout to keep providers sharp, focused, and happy with their careers.