Labor Shortages and Compassion Fatigue: How a Digital Workforce Maintains the “Human Connection” With Patients

By Greg Kefer at Lifelink Systems

As we move into year three of dealing with COVID-19, healthcare workers are stretched thin and struggling to manage the emotional burden of their jobs. Many are experiencing indirect or secondary traumatic stress from long hours of helping patients in overcrowded units. Record levels of attrition have made things even more daunting.  Prolonged exposure to all of these factor leads to compassion fatigue for many clinical providers and administrative healthcare workers. Compassion fatigue often is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion that leads to difficulty in empathizing or feeling compassion for others. Over time this can deteriorate patient-provider relationships, reduce satisfaction, and potentially endanger patient safety.

Burnout and Compassion Fatigue — Chicken or the Egg?

When organizations fail to reduce chronic workplace stressors, such as mismatched workload and administrative monotony, exhausted employees lack motivation to perform. Half of clinicians struggle with empathy for non-vaccinated eligible patients and nearly two-thirds are losing passion for their jobs. Although so-called “moral injury” is more widely accepted in positions directly dealing with trauma, , the narrative stretches past the frontlines. Today, 52% of all healthcare workers, including administrative staff, report compassion fatigue and feel intrusive negative thoughts.

Some people argue about what comes first, compassion fatigue or burnout, which is caused by work-related attributes such as the job, coworkers, one’s supervisor and poor work culture. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as they both fuel each other as they expand. It’s clear that if resource-strained health systems can’t minimize organizational burnout, compassion fatigue will be near impossible to prioritize, placing healthcare workers at great personal risk.

The Compassion We Need Requires More than a Positive Attitude

Compassion reserves are running on fumes, from frontline staff victimized by frustrated patients and families to administrators buried in repetitive documentation. If healthcare workers no longer see their careers as manageable nor meaningful, patients are  at increased risk for avoidable mistakes and poor outcomes.

And many health systems that continue to struggle filling both front and back office roles have noted declining patient satisfaction, despite early upticks during the pandemic. Patients complain that office staff are ‘just not as pleasant,’ and their likelihood to recommend providers has dropped 4.5% since 2020.

Even more troubling, care is falling through the cracks, as unanswered phone calls, emails, and EHR portal messages about medication refills and prior authorizations pile up. This all negatively impacts care coordination and creates delays in care that result to worsening medical conditions, higher-acuity populations, soaring costs and patient access problems. 

As health systems financially recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and recoup encounter volume, they’ll face an uphill battle to limit care continuity disruptions and compete for patients. Hiring more workers is not the only solution. Winning health systems must invest in their staff to grow successfully.

Back to Empathy and Compassion with a Digital Workforce

COVID-19 has irrevocably changed patient expectations of their care. How can provider systems build and deploy solutions to address care team burnout and compassion fatigue, while improving patient communication?

1. Focus on administrative patient-facing tasks.

Administration (non-clinical workflows) represents 30%+ of all healthcare spending. Over 80% of administrative patient-facing tasks can be fully automated, freeing up care teams to create more optimal experiences for patients, while reducing cost overhead and overwhelm (or underwhelm). Online presence alone is limiting. Leaders must invest in proactive outreach to re-engage dormant populations and drive continuity across the network at scale.

2. Automate all scripted, repetitive patient outreach.

Population health outreach campaigns fail when workers don’t have the right infrastructure or backend logistics. Hospitals must equip their staff with powerful workflow automation tools to remove staff burden.

For instance, presumptive appointment booking or medication refill programs can notify eligible patients to accept pre-scheduled visit slots or treatment digitally, without the need for manual intervention. Health leaders need to invest in solutions that are deeply integrated to existing systems of record to drive deep patient journey orchestration, saving thousands of hours of care team time.

3. Deploy digital solutions with empathic capabilities

Despite the desire for human connection in a post-pandemic reality, staffing issues are here to stay. Health leaders are more accustomed to automating provider workstreams, but have little to no expertise designing human-like patient interactions. All too often, digitization feels transactional and survey-like, leading to high drop-off rates.

What makes technology empathic? It’s easy to understand, contextual, and anticipates needs. These are hallmarks of conversational AI, language-based technology that uses relevant data to personalize information and reduce the friction of search and navigation. Greater speed and convenience delights patients. 

Conversational AI powers digital assistants on mobile messages, where nearly every consumer prefers to spend their time. With near-perfect memory compared to a human agent, digital assistants also permute hundreds of conversational turns and return behaviors, including patients completing tasks across multiple sessions in less time — and with less repeat backs.

For example, Memorial Health, a community-based, not-for-profit system serving central deployed these strategies to automate the workload of 15 FTEs on lab result delivery and improve patient satisfaction.

Memorial Health’s President of Ambulatory Services, Jay Roszhart, describes, “There’s a thousand things our care teams do every day, a thousand times a day. The key is automating that in a way that still feels like a human connection.”

Healthcare leaders will need these longer-term strategies to supplement pressing burnout and compassion fatigue reduction programs. Medical assistants can get back to more meaningful moments with patients, back-office teams can prioritize the right escalations, and all teams can pay extra attention to proper care guidelines and safety protocols. And they’re freed up to focus on bringing compassion into their lives and interactions with others.

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