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Burnout theme of Business Journal health care conference

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Burnout among health care workers is not a mental health diagnosis.

Rather, it’s a symptom of a health care system in need of change, and one that isn’t addressed enough, said Dr. Tait Shanafelt, chief wellness officer of the WellMD Center at Stanford Medicine, during his keynote presentation at NBBJ’s 20th annual Health Care Conference, held Friday at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa.

Shanafelt, a practicing hematologist/oncologist, first took an interest in burnout issues about 20 years ago as a senior resident at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he led a team of interns.

“I was just watching them react to the next admission, the way they’d talk about patients or the census of patients we were caring for, and recognized that some of their statements and the way they were talking about their work was not congruent with what I knew they stood for and the values of our profession,” Shanafelt said. “And yet, it was still pretty close to what I remembered being two years before in their shoes and feeling that same way of just trying to survive.”

As a result of his observations and empathy, Shanafelt said it was easy for him to choose a topic for his impending research rotation: studying the link between burnout in health care professionals and quality of care in patients.

Shanafelt subsequently spent years on this work at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota before leaving for Stanford Medicine in 2017 after being recruited to lead its new WellMD Center.

Throughout his years of research work, Shanafelt said he’s starting to see a sea change.

“Most organizations, if asked how they ensure and improve quality in their organizations, would give really simple answers like, ‘We have really smart people who are highly trained professionals and provide the best quality of care,’” Shanafelt said, noting that when leading organizations started measuring quality, they realized they weren’t as good as they thought they were.

“Improving quality is not about having talented people, it’s about the way they work together, it’s about bringing consistency, identifying gaps, bringing together teams to improve them, empowering people doing the work to improve the work, and then to track and measure institutional progress. That’s how we will make gains.”

During the conference, Wendy Young, executive director of the Sonoma County Medical Association, announced that the California Medical Association has initiated a statewide collaborative effort that will include Shanafelt and Dr. Mickey Trockel, also from the WellMD Center at Stanford.

“Through their goals at Stanford University, they are working with CMA to create a robust physician wellness program that will be one of the cornerstones of (CMA’s) membership value,” Young said.

The effort will be led by Dave Logan, CEO at Wellness Physician California.

Logan also participated in the Business Journal’s wellness panel at the conference, along with Yasmin Bains, a medical student at Touro University; Dr. Christopher Crossland, director of Joy and Meaning in Medicine Site Director, UCSF Family and Community Medicine, Kaiser Santa Rosa; Vivian Dickson, staff RN at Sutter Hospital, Dr. Gary McLeod, president of Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods, and Dr. James DeVote, chief medical officer, St. Joseph Health Medical Group.

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