Federally Qualified Health Center Clinicians And Staff Increasingly Dissatisfied With Workplace Conditions

By Mark W. Friedberg, Rachel O. Reid, Justin W. Timbie, Claude Setodji, Aaron Kofner, Beverly Weidmer and Katherine Kahn (all from RAND)
Health Affairs, August 2017

Abstract

Better working conditions for clinicians and staff could help primary care practices implement delivery system innovations and help sustain the US primary care workforce. Using longitudinal surveys, we assessed the experience of clinicians and staff in 296 clinical sites that participated in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) Advanced Primary Care Practice Demonstration. Participating FQHCs were expected to achieve, within three years, patient-centered medical home recognition at level 3—the highest level possible. During 2013–14, clinicians and staff in these FQHCs reported statistically significant declines in multiple measures of professional satisfaction, work environment, and practice culture. There were no significant improvements on any surveyed measure. These findings suggest that working conditions in FQHCs have deteriorated recently. Whether findings would be similar in other primary care practices is unknown. Although we did not identify the causes of these declines, possible stressors include the adoption of health information technology, practice transformation, and increased demand for services.

From the Discussion

Our findings are consistent with reports of increasing burnout and declining professional satisfaction among physicians across the United States, not just in safety-net clinics. However, they differ with the only assessment of longitudinal changes in provider experience during a medical home initiative published to our knowledge, in which transformation within a single Group Health Cooperative site was associated with improvements in provider burnout between 2006 and 2008. This discrepancy might be explained by differences in time frame, type of clinic (FQHC versus integrated system), and intervention design (the Group Health pilot was motivated by and designed to mitigate provider burnout). Moreover, some FQHCs have high staff turnover, and most serve patients with complex medical, behavioral, and social needs—which can make practice transformation more difficult. The finding that top-of-license scores did not improve suggests that many FQHCs in our sample may have transformed only to a modest extent. Applying for and receiving medical home recognition could have been a higher priority than transformation. In addition, when safety-net clinics have insufficient staffing levels, this can increase the risk of burnout associated with quality improvement efforts.

Conclusion

Clinicians and other staff members working in a national sample of federally qualified health center sites reported declines over time in multiple measures of professional satisfaction, work environment, and practice culture. Our analysis could not identify the factors contributing to these declines. However, as additional health system changes accumulate under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2016 and new legislative and regulatory activity, policy makers should consider further study of how these forces could affect primary care working conditions—especially in FQHCs and other safety-net clinics.

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Imagine the satisfaction it must bring to health care professionals to practice in an environment wherein you know that you are providing health care access to less fortunate individuals who might otherwise go without care. Furthermore, these Federally Qualified Health Centers were engaged in improving the delivery system in a manner that should increase satisfaction through attaining the highest status level of patient centered medical homes. Yet measures of professional satisfaction, work environment, and practice culture all declined in this study, resulting in provider burnout. What went wrong?

One observation might give us a clue. A similar prior effort to transform a Group Health Cooperative site into a medical home resulted in a decline in provider burnout. The authors report that “the Group Health pilot was motivated by and designed to mitigate provider burnout.” In contrast the various innovations taking place today are designed by bureaucrats and policy wonks largely based on widespread application of health policy theory flavored by ideology. They don’t get it.

Could single payer improve the situation? It could if the stewards were always keeping in mind what is best for the patient, and that includes ensuring the contentment of the health care workforce. A single payer system should automatically establish the presumption that this is all about improving the health of the patients and the community at large. It is not about providing a favorable business environment for the stakeholders even though that means perpetuating health care injustices such as lack of insurance, impaired access, financial hardship, health care inequity, and poorer health outcomes.

So one of the more important gifts of converting to a single payer system would be an improvement in attitude. We really need it.

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