The Chief Wellness Officer: Insights and Impacts

Burnout has proliferated in the COVID era. Characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a low sense of personal accomplishment from work, it especially has affected clinical care providers. A survey recently conducted by Medscape of 7,500 physicians in 8 countries – most based in the United States – suggests that physician burnout is on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. physicians reported that burnout had intensified during the crisis, for reasons including fear of contracting the coronavirus, supply shortages, full ICUs, greater family needs and general mental exhaustion.

In the following Q&A, new WittKieffer partner Deborah (Dee) Wing, M.D., M.B.A. considers the impacts of physician burnout and the essential role a Chief Wellness Officer can play in combatting it.

Beyond its impact on a doctor’s immediate health and well-being, what are the greater implications of the phenomenon of physician burnout?

Wing: There are both economic impacts and personal costs. Among the economic impacts are increased clinician turnover, medical errors, legal issues, lower quality and safety, unnecessary testing and referrals and possibly higher hospital admissions and readmission. The personal costs are alarming – they include higher probability of drug or alcohol addiction, increased mental health problems and higher suicide rate. Approximately 400 physicians each year commit suicide. This number appears to be increasing during the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, physician attrition is rising. Undoubtedly, physicians, like many others, are re-evaluating their personal and professional lives in response to the added pressures and stress of doing their jobs in the midst of a pandemic. Many physicians are cutting back or retiring from medical practice altogether. As a result, the entire U.S. healthcare system is in jeopardy.

What role can a Chief Wellness Officer play in addressing burnout in physicians, as well as other care providers and employees? Where can they make an immediate impact?

Wing: Chief Wellness Officers function first and foremost as beacons to drive attention around the significance of health, wellness and resilience in the workplace. They can have an immediate impact as symbols of the institutional commitment to this issue. They gather information about the organization and listen to employees about the current state of affairs, then synthesize this information and, following inclusive planning sessions, implement systems and structures to address burnout. Finally, it is elemental that the CWO raise awareness of issues of burnout and well-being to executive leaders, and also develop a close-knit relationship with marketing and/or communications teams on enterprise-wide messaging that resonates with clinicians.

Where should the CWO role reside in the organizational structure and what should the relationship be between the CWO and CEO?

Wing: Ideally, as recommended by the National Academy of Medicine Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience and other leading organizations such as the AAMC, the CWO is a member of the senior leadership team and reports directly to the CEO, President or Dean. Chief Wellness Officers are responsible for creating and maintaining a system-wide culture of wellness by promoting, supporting and advocating for staff well-being. They are collaborators, strategists, operators and policy-makers whose role includes clinical, financial and business operational oversight. Thus, it is important for this executive to have the ear of the CEO and senior leadership.

What are some of the considerations in successfully recruiting a CWO that organizations need to consider?

Wing: An organization should consider carefully its institutional situation, challenges and needs when recruiting a CWO, evaluate what role(s) and responsibilities the role should have, and provide adequate resources to ensure effective change. Experts recommend that wellness programs should measure, compare and longitudinally assess efforts to reduce the occupational risk of clinician burnout, cultivate professional well-being among healthcare providers and the overall function of the healthcare system.

Candidates for CWO roles must understand what drives professional fulfillment among healthcare providers, how to evaluate the organization and its culture in relation to physician well-being, and what tools are effective in improving the environment for physicians. Finally, it’s important for an aspiring CWO to recognize that different clinical disciplines have differing challenges and needs and therefore not take a blanket approach in addressing the needs of each.

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