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How a chief wellness officer can tackle clinician burnout head-on

In a Health Affairs piece, a group of physician leaders discuss the importance of a chief wellness officer and provide guidance on how to integrate the job into health system leadership.

In 2017, as high rates of physician burnout in the United States continued to cause concern, Stanford Medicine became the first academic medical center in the country to create a position of chief wellness officer.

In a new piece published in Health Affairs, Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, teamed with the first person to hold that job — Stanford professor Tait Shanafelt, MD — as well as numerous other physician leaders to define the role, discuss its importance and provide guidance on how a chief wellness officer can be integrated into a health system’s leadership.

“Health systems can no longer afford to ignore what has become a major public health issue,” the authors write about clinician burnout, adding that “unless there is a concerted focus on clinician well-being from the executive level, dramatic changes will not occur.”

Needless to say, burnout and depression of physicians, nurses and other providers can be unsafe for both the health workers and their patients. In addition to the moral imperative to improve clinicians' outlook, the authors make a business case for creating an environment in which everyone can thrive. They write:

Burnout and depression have been linked to increased medical errors, reduced quality of care, patient dissatisfaction, reduced productivity, and perhaps most costly, staff turnover. Findings from cost analyses indicate that, for every dollar invested in wellness, there is a $3 to $6 return on investment.

To create and maintain a culture of well-being, Minor and his colleagues write, health systems must consider clinician wellness as important as quality, informatics and data. In these and other areas, research has shown that top leaders play a key role in the success of health care innovations — an argument for including a chief wellness officer on the executive team alongside the chief quality officer and chief information officer.

As a central and senior advocate, a chief wellness officer should have the authority to monitor conditions for clinicians, oversee evidence-based improvement efforts and influence cultural shifts, the physicians say. “At all times, the chief wellness officer’s function must extend beyond raising awareness to having the responsibility of improving the health and well-being of clinicians,” they write.

To clarify the role, the authors offer a model job description, complete with potential minimum requirements and specific responsibilities.

They conclude with a summary of their major points and a call to action:

Establishing an appropriately-resourced executive leadership position in the form of a chief wellness officer is not only an important signal to clinicians that their well-being is vital to their organization, but will also elevate programming and institutional focus, increase financing, and ensure a coordinated organizational approach to wellness culture.

It’s time to prioritize and tackle clinician burnout head-on.

Photo by Martin Brosy

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