How Do We Prevent Burnout in the Healthcare System?

The pandemic is stretching our resources, and providing a reminder of the importance of building resilience in healthcare teams.

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“When we look at the healthcare system, the success or failure of patient care is very much tied to the success or failure of the people that provide patient care,” says Zubin Austin, professor and chair of pharmacy management at the University of Toronto.

His lab’s research into what makes healthcare work for the people who provide it is particularly timely given the current global pandemic. COVID-19 is stretching our health resources, and it’s particularly important in emergencies like these to reflect on what makes healthcare systems resilient.

“I’m a big believer in teams and teamwork,” adds PhD student Jennifer Lake. “A primary care team has a lot of different types of professionals on it: physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners. Patients benefit when they have the same providers for a long period of time.”

But keeping patients together with the same care team starts with investing in people and actually building strong and long-lasting teams. And it turns out that the investment we put in now is rewarded not just with better patient outcomes, but also significant cost savings.

“People are happier. There’s less burnout when they’re on teams where they feel valued, where they know they’re contributing, if they’re working well together, if they’re a high-efficiency team,” says Lake.

“That will actually help impact healthcare costs. We’ll be able to deliver better care or more care with the same money that we’re already putting in. And that’s a huge impact in Canada because we spent a lot of money on healthcare. It’s a big line item.”

Healthcare is also a field where things change rapidly as new research and clinical options emerge all the time. However, no matter how much of an improvement a new idea or treatment may be, patients will only see the benefit when healthcare providers are able to adapt their practices just as quickly. That’s an incredibly tall order, and one that PhD student Naomi Steenhof tries to train her students to prepare for early on.

“When I’m teaching my students, I have to not just be concerned about teaching them facts and things that they need to know right now, but how am I going to prepare them for 30 years in the future when there’s medications or technologies that I’m not even aware of right now?” says Steenhof.

“We’re spending a lot of money on these new medications and technologies, but if we’re not thinking about how to train practitioners to be able to utilize them appropriately, society may not end up seeing the benefits that they could.”

When healthcare teams are strong and can learn and grow together, that’s the ideal situation for everyone. Austin adds that “as policies change, finding a way of bringing all of these different groups together and helping them to see that our work should be aligned in a way that allows us to all row in the same direction is a really gratifying part of what I get to do.”

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Zubin Austin BScPhm MBA MISc PhD FCAHS is professor and Koffler Chair in Management at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and the Institute for Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation – Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

His research focuses on the personal and professional development of the health workforce, with a particular emphasis on internationally educated health professionals who have received their training outside Canada. He has published over 175 peer reviewed manuscripts, authored 4 reference textbooks, delivered over 150 keynote presentations at international conferences, and has received awards for his work from national and international organizations.

In 2017, in recognition of the societal impact of his work, Austin was installed as a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, one of the highest honours for health researchers in Canada. He is also the only University of Toronto professor ever to have received both the President’s Teaching Award for sustained excellence in education, and the President’s Research Impact award for the national and international significance of his research. He has also been named undergraduate Professor of the Year by students on 20 occasions.

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