Yet Another Study Says EMRs Contribute to Physician Burnout

Posted on September 21, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

A Mayo Clinic study recently concluded that – surprise, surprise – that physicians who used EMRs were less likely to be satisfied with the amount of time spent on clerical tasks. But from where I sit, while the story certainly deserves attention, it’s also worth considering how this fits into the problem of physician burnout on the whole.

First, let’s review the study itself. To conduct the study, which appeared in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers connected with 6,375 physicians in active practice, 5,389 of which (84.5%) reported using EMRs. Meanwhile, of 5,892 physicians who said that CPOE was relevant to their practice specialty, 4,858 (82.5%) said they used CPOE technology.

Researchers concluded that physicians who use EMRs and CPOE had lower satisfaction with time spent in clerical tasks and higher rates of burnout, including when the data was adjusted for age, sex, specialty, practice setting and hours worked per week. The bottom line, researchers said, was that this large national study demonstrated that satisfaction with EMRs and CPOE was generally low.

Now let’s take a look at the big picture on physician burnout. One comprehensive take comes from the American Academy of Family Physicians, whose position paper on the subject includes the following definition of burnout: “A syndrome characterized by a loss of enthusiasm for work (emotional exhaustion), feeling of cynicism (depersonalization), and a low sense of personal accomplishment.”

The AAFP paper, which points out that the phenomenon has been studied for decades, notes that 45.8% physicians are considered to be experiencing at least one symptom of burnout. According to a recent broad-based study, that there is currently a 35.2% overall burnout rate among U.S. physicians.

According to research cited by the AAFP, there’s still no definitive data on what causes physician burnout, but notes that common drivers of family physician burnout include paperwork, feeling undervalued, frustration referral networks, difficult patients, medicolegal issues, and challenges in finding work-life balance.

While I don’t want to minimize the impact that a badly-designed EMR can have a negative impact on a physician’s practice, or underplay the findings of the Mayo study cited above, I think it’s worth noting that the group doesn’t cite EMRs as a specific cause of burnout.

Clearly, physicians don’t like using EMRs for administrative work — and it even appears that they would rather use paper to handle such chores. However, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that doctors loved documenting on paper either. Complaints about not wanting to finish their charts were common in the paper world too.

And the truth is, as EMRs have gradually shifted from being vehicles to support billing to richer clinical documentation and support tools, it may very well have become harder to use them for routine administrative tasks. Vendors probably need to reconsider yet again the balance between clinical and administrative features, and how effective both are.

That being said, I think it’s important not to forget that physicians are facing many, many challenges, most of which began grinding away at their independence and self-respect well before EMRs became an established part of the picture.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that for some physicians, feeling forced to adopt an EMR has proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. And they certainly deserve a hearing. But if in the process, we allow ourselves to lose sight of the countless other problems physicians are struggling with, we are doing them a disservice. Addressing physicians’ EMR issues won’t fix everything that’s broken here.