How well-designed tech can help medical professionals avoid burnout

Right now, technology is diminishing clinician and patient experience. It could and should be improving them.
By Carlo Perez

About the Author: Carlo Perez is the CEO and co-founder of Swift Medical. He's an engineer and entrepreneur, passionate about delivering designs and transformative technologies that put empathy into action. Raised by a father who was a trained engineer and a mother who worked as a nurse, Carlo spent seven years in R&D at Advanced Micro Devices Inc., where his research focused on industry-leading 3D graphics hardware. In 2009, after a year of hitchhiking, Carlo found a calling teaching post-graduate engineering at Humber College, covering subjects that ranged from RF technology to advanced robotics. During this time, he explored novel applications of state-of-the-art visioning technology with his future Swift Medical co-founders – a path that led them to wound care. Today, after three short years, Swift Medical is a leading provider of digital wound care management, used in over 1,000 facilities to monitor over 100,000 beds across North America.

How should doctors and nurses spend their time? Ideally, talking with patients about their pain and progress, examining their illnesses and injuries, and planning their treatment. But, that’s a shrinking part of clinicians’ days. Luckily, it's a reversible trend.

A study by the University of Wisconsin last year determined that primary care physicians spend more than half of their working hours on administration such as updating health records, ordering tests and inputting billing codes. Ironically, technology has become the problem — or, rather, poorly designed technology.

Take the electronic medical records systems that health care facilities have rushed to install in the last decade. In theory, they should make clinicians’ lives easier and patient care smoother, but in practice they force doctors and nurses to spend mind-numbing hours each day navigating a maze of screen menus, tabs, forms and buttons. Logging even routine procedures can take a dozen clicks. Such is the burden that “pajama time” has become an industry euphemism for the after-hours admin that’s now a routine part of clinicians’ home lives.

This contributes to extremely high rates of workplace stress among medical personnel – nearly two-thirds of doctors in the U.S. report feeling burned out or depressed. Long-term care facilities have particularly acute problems, with 70% turnover among nurses each year. To halt the trend of doctors and nurses spending a lot of time entering data, health care facilities need to adopt a multi-faceted approach to tech that tackles both the immediate symptoms and the underlying causes:

Let them talk rather than type

Making complex systems like electronic medical records more user-friendly would be the work of years. But clinics can invest in services that take the burden off medical professionals right now. For instance, the market for professional medical scribes who type notes during consultations has soared in recent years, but creating an entire parallel workforce of note-takers is ultimately not sustainable. Numerous companies, such as Suki and Sopris Health, have spotted a gap in the market and have created virtual assistants using voice-recognition technology. The systems vary, but essentially they listen to the doctor-patient conversation, pick up on the clinically relevant parts and convert them into notes in the relevant sections of the patient’s electronic record.

Use AI to simplify routine tasks

Doctors and nurses spend countless hours on tasks that could be automated using artificial intelligence. Medical imaging is a particularly promising area because AIs have become adept at interpreting images and picking out the important information. Some radiology departments are already using AI to flag images that show signs of diseases like cancers or lung tuberculosis. This allows radiologists to focus on the scans that need their attention, rather than hunting for needles in haystacks.

Chronic wounds can take months or years to heal. Their progress is measured with a paper ruler and a cotton swab, which is inaccurate and time consuming. A number of devices, including smartphone apps, that use AI to measure important characteristics like a wound’s size, depth and tissue type and automatically record them in the patient’s record can help medical professionals focus on patient care. On my count, this can save them over 30 minutes of documentation time per patient. Across a year, thousands of hours of clinician time could be saved by complementing their work with AI solutions.  

Get clinicians engaged with tech communities

As clinicians struggle with burnout at epidemic levels, we must extend the concept of “empathy” in medicine from patients to doctors and nurses, and design technologies that are sympathetic to their needs. This is a view that’s increasingly common among tech companies, but designers still face a major hurdle: it’s difficult to engage enough clinicians in the design process to get good feedback. As such, it’s all too easy for engineers, to lose focus on usability and prioritize needs of hospital procurement departments, insurance companies and governments, which all have competing demands. We need more efforts like Hacking Health, an organization that’s doing excellent work bringing together these diverse groups of academics, healthcare professionals, regulators and tech companies to try to find the common ground where tech works for all.

This is about more than making doctors’ work days easier: badly designed tech has an impact on patient care. Last year, Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford University Medical School, told PBS that patient-doctor trust was being eroded because clinicians spend so much their encounter typing at their laptop rather than making eye contact. Intuitive technologies that prioritize user-experience can reverse this trend. In short, clinicians need new technologies that are as functional as the stethoscope — a device so intuitive that users barely notice it is there.

If we want to save our doctors and nurses from being consumed by data entry, we need this to become the healthcare industry standard.

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