Investing in Better Work/Home Life Balance for Physicians

NOVEMBER 25, 2019
Heidi Moawad, MD
Many physicians experience a day-to-day workload that takes a toll on work/home life balance. Patient care is often compounded by a heavy burden of clerical responsibilities, documentation, and fighting for payer approval for patients’ tests and treatments.

And the extra work comes without an accompanying increase in pay, making it impractical to scale back patient care hours to accommodate the unpaid (and non-face to face) time spent on each patient.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each physician, specialty, clinic, hospital, and personal situation has its unique idiosyncrasies that promote or impede time management. But some overarching principles can help just about every doctor achieve healthier work/home life balance.

Finding fulfillment at work   

The self-help theme of feeling great about your work holds some important seeds of truth. As a physician, you have worked hard to achieve your educational goals and certifications.

So, it makes sense that you would want to find a job that makes you happy. But it is unrealistic to expect all unpleasant chores to be eliminated from your day-to-day work. Certainly, some tasks can make you feel unproductive and inefficient, but it is important to realize that the “do what makes you happy” mantra is flawed in many ways. 

That said, it is useful to make the distinction between what you need to do and what you can decide to take off of your plate. If co-authoring another peer-reviewed journal article or joining a hospital committee isn’t going to help you reach your career goals, you might decide to step away from that project.

But when you have to deal with required tasks that just won’t go away—like keeping patient logs of your procedures to maintain your board certification—it makes sense to just do it without dwelling too much on how the drudgery of working on the log makes you feel unfulfilled and unproductive. 

Setting a schedule 

Your schedule at work may include surgical days, clinic sessions, or urgent care shifts. And you might want to squeeze in other tasks, such as calling patients, looking up lab results, or even personal business (such as making an appointment for your car repair) during your downtime. Some doctors find that creating a consistent routine for tasks like charting and calling patients can help with efficiency. For example, one day a week of morning downtime can be devoted to continuing medical education (CME) or maintenance of certification (MOC). When you follow a relatively consistent pattern, you won’t have to waste time planning how to use gaps (like patient no shows) in your schedule. 

It can help if you inform coworkers about some of the usual aspects of your system.

If your staff knows that you routinely make phone calls twice per week in the afternoon, they can tell your patients and referring physicians when to expect these types of calls.  

Multitasking doesn’t work 

Trying to do many things at once can backfire. It is hard to concentrate and to produce your best results when you are focused on more than one thing at a time. Research shows that multitasking in medicine leads to errors1. Charting one patient’s records while talking on the phone about another patient interferes with the speed and accuracy of both tasks.

This can cause serious slip-ups or wasted time trying to correct minor mistakes. 

Using down time to catch up or get ahead can be beneficial, but only if you make sure to concentrate on one thought at a time. 

Clustering tasks when possible 

When you schedule several of the same type of tasks sequentially, you can get through them more efficiently because of the overlap in your thought process. Switching from taking care of your family’s vacation planning to looking at your patient’s imaging study and then back to vacation planning and then on to your patient’s labs can be confusing. 

Taking the time to look through the whole chart of a patient who has a complex clinical picture and making the necessary phone calls or emails when the patient’s situation is still top-of-mind may feel like it is taking a long time. But the overall time spent will be shorter and more productive than it would be if you take many breaks to think about other things. 

Accuracy is vitally important in medicine. And the only way to achieve a reasonable work/home life balance is to sacrifice work or home life or to maintain a degree of efficiency. Blending efficiency and accuracy requires strategic planning, often with open communication so that colleagues and staff will know when to expect completion of tasks that do not directly involve patient care. 




Reference
1. Skaugset LM, Farrell S, Carney M, Wolff M, Santen SA, Perry M, Cico SJ. Can You Multitask? Evidence and Limitations of Task Switching and Multitasking in Emergency Medicine. Ann Emerg Med. 2016 Aug;68(2):189-95. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2015.10.003. Epub 2015 Nov 14.

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