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A healthcare employee feeling disengaged from the workplace
5 Min Read

The Healthcare Employee Engagement Crisis


The lane was clear. And for a split second, my mind lapsed back to high school, thinking I could perform an agile maneuver to the basket—forgetting that I’m now in my mid-30s. I cut to my right. Then my left. But my left ankle buckled, leaving me in pain and sidelined with a lot of swelling … and far less pride.

My pickup basketball game with coworkers landed me in the office of a sports medicine physician. After consulting with a nurse and taking a quick X-ray, I was escorted to an exam room with a computer, two monitors, and a photo of a classic Indy 500 race car.

Dr. Jones entered and shook my hand. He was tall with a sparkling white smile. I picked him because he had the highest rating on my insurance provider’s web portal. He examined my ankle, then turned to the computer to pull up my X-rays. While he reviewed them, he asked me what I do for a living.

“Employee feedback,” I responded. “You know those employee surveys most companies have people take every year? Well, we help organizations measure how people are doing in a way that makes it super clear what to do, so employees will actually become more engaged.”

“Oh, those surveys that I always ignore!” Dr. Jones responded with a chuckle. I flashed a smile. But inside, I knew that healthcare providers like this one are in desperate need of an engagement intervention.

Doctors have increasingly less time to connect with patients.

It’s no surprise that Dr. Jones doesn’t bother with things like employee surveys. It’s likely that he just doesn’t have time to do anything not considered essential. Many doctors today don’t get to spend as much time with patients as they’d like, and most spend more time on clerical work than bedside care. While technology has helped advance the medical field in amazing ways, it has also taken some of the human element of healthcare away.

“…The despair I hear comes from being the highest-paid clerical worker in the hospital: For every one hour we spend cumulatively with patients, studies have shown, we spend nearly two hours on our primitive Electronic Health Records, or “E.H.R.s,” and another hour or two during sacred personal time,” writes Abraham Verghese, in the New York Times.

Verghese is an Indian-American physician and educator whose work has also appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Guardian, and who was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2016. Dr. Verghese has made it his mission to address the problems facing the medical field today, particularly, the growing decline in personal connection and human interaction between doctors and patients.

“In America today, the patient in the hospital bed is just the icon, a placeholder for the real patient who is not in the bed but in the computer. That virtual entity gets all our attention … The living, breathing source of the data and images we juggle, meanwhile, is in the bed and left wondering: Where is everyone? What are they doing? Hello! It’s my body, you know!” writes Verghese.

The healthcare employee experience is in dire straights.

The demands being placed on healthcare workers today are detrimental to their engagement level, which is especially troubling, as people’s lives are literally in their hands. Poor communication between care providers during patient handoffs is responsible for roughly 80 percent of serious medical errors (now the third leading cause of death in the U.S.) and nurses who are disengaged are more likely to describe the quality of care on their unit as fair or poor, and to grade patient safety as poor or failing.

Having disengaged employees is also extremely costly to healthcare providers. Because of the burnout they’re experiencing, many physicians are leaving their practices or the medical field altogether. “My colleague at Stanford, Tait Shanafelt, a hematologist and oncologist who specializes in the well-being of physicians, is Stanford Medicine’s first chief wellness officer. His studies suggest that burnout is one of the largest predictors of physician attrition from the workforce. The total cost of recruiting a physician can be nearly $90,000, but the lost revenue per physician who leaves is between $500,000 and $1 million, even more in high-paying specialties,” writes Verghese.

There is hope for a more engaged healthcare field.

As the issue of burnout in the medical field is more widely discussed—thanks to advocates like Verghese—more providers are taking note and looking for ways to affect change. Part of that change must include listening to the doctors, nurses, therapists, and staff who have poured their hearts and souls into the medical profession. There’s a reason they chose the career they did, and it likely wasn’t so they could input data into a computer.

Research shows that organizations with more engaged medical professionals have less turnover, provide higher quality patient care, and have fewer safety incidents. Finding the pain points and blockers that exist in healthcare organizations can help leaders better understand how to revamp processes and enable more time for personalized patient care. And the more time healthcare workers are able to spend on activities that give them purpose—like sitting and talking with their patients—the more engaged they’ll be.