Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Health Care Academics' Unrest and Bad Health Care Leadership?

Last month we discussed a recent, large scale study of physician burnout, and wondered whether it would finally inspire some discourse about why physicians are really so upset.  In particular, we hypothesized,  based on some real, if limited data, that physician angst, dissatisfaction, burnout, etc may mainly be a response to the problems with leadership and governance of health care organization we post about on Health Care Renewal.

After that post, one of our scouts found a very interesting and relevant article from earlier this year which got little attention at the time, but deserves more.  [Pololi LH, Krupat E, Civian JT, Ash AS, Brennan RT. Why are a quarter of faculty considering leaving academic medicine? A study of their perceptions of institutional culture and intentions to leave at 26 representative U.S. medical schools. Acad Med. 2012; 87: 859-69. Link here.]

Study Design

This was a cross-sectional survey of faculty at 26 medical schools in the US, selected to be similar to the general population of medical schools in the country.  At each school, 150 faculty were randomly chosen stratified by sex and age, and then the sample was enriched to include additional minority faculty and women surgeons, for a total of 4578.

The faculty were sent a multi item survey to assess their perception of the organizational culture of their institutions, and asked about their intentions to continue in or leave their current positions and academic medicine.  Responses to each survey item were allowed to be from 1 = strongly disagree, to 5 = strongly agree.  The items on the survey were combined into various scales.  A number of items on the survey seemed to be related to issues we frequently discuss on Health Care Renewal.  These items ended up in three different scales, entitled Relatedness/Inclusion, Values Alignment, and Ethical/Moral Distress.  The survey items are listed below, grouped by issue, with the scales into which they were combined noted.

Issue: Mission-Hostile Leadership

Administration only interested in me for revenue   (Reverse coded) (Values Alignment)
Institution committed to serving the public (VA)
Institution's actions well-aligned with stated values and mission (VA)
Institution puts own needs ahead of educational/clinical missions (RC) (VA)
My values well-aligned with school's (VA)
Institution awards excellence in clinical care (VA)
Institution does not value teaching (RC) (VA)
Have to compromise values to work here (Ethical/Moral Distress)

Issue: Deceptive, Unethical Leadership

Felt pressure to behave unethically (Ethical/Moral Distress)
Need to be deceitful in order to succeed (EMD)
Others have taken credit for my work (EMD)

Issue: Generation of the Anechoic Effect by  Suppression of Free Speech, Academic Freedom, Dissent, Whistle-Blowing,

Feel ignored/ invisible (RC) (Relatedness/Inclusion)
Hide what I think and feel (RC) (R/I)
Reluctant to express opinion/ fear negative consequences (RC) (R/I)

So in summary, the survey contained quite a few questions about mission-hostile management, comprising nearly all of the Values Alignment scale, some questions about deceptive or unethical leadership, all in the Ethical/Moral Distress scale, and some about generation of the anechoic effect by suppression of free speech, academic freedom, dissent, and whistle-blowing, all in the Relatedness/Inclusion scale.


The response rate was 52% (N=2381.)

Unfortunately, the article did not include the distributions of the responses to individual survey items, and only included the mean and standard error of the scale scores.  The values for the scales of most interest were:
Relatedness/Inclusion  3.56 SE= 0.022
Values Alignment  3.25 SE=0.028
Ethical/Moral Distress 2.36 SE=0.022

Note that the article did not address the degree individual items, especially those listed above, contributed to variation in the scale scores.

A small majority of faculty indicated their intentions to stay at their institutions (57%).  Of the remainder, 14% were considering leaving their school due to dissatisfaction, and another 21% were considering leaving academic medicine due to dissatisfaction.  The remainder were considering leaving due to personal/ family reasons or to retire.

The authors did complex multinomial logit modeling to assess the relationships among the various scales, demographic factors, and intention to leave.  Most relevant to us, Relatedness/Inclusion was significantly related to intention to leave the institution due to dissatisfaction (Coefficient -0.69, p lt 0.001, OR =0.50), as was Values Alignment (-0.39, p=0.04, OR=0.68), but not Ethical/ Moral Distress.  Furthermore, Relatedness/Inclusion was related to intention to leave academic medicine due to dissatisfaction (-0.48, p lt 0.001, 0.62), as was Ethical/Moral Distress (0.60, p lt 0.001, OR =1.82). The article did not address whether individual survey items, including those of most interest listed above, were related to intention to leave.  The article also did not address whether responses to the survey or intention to leave varied across faculty characteristics, medical school characteristics, or individual medical schools. 

Summary and Comments

This very large survey of faculty from multiple US medical schools showed that more than one-third were considering leaving their institutions or academic medicine due to dissatisfaction, indicating a striking prevalence of faculty distress.  Their responses to questions about perceived organizational cultural and leadership problems, including those possibly related to leadership's perceived hostility to the mission, leadership's perceived dishonesty or unethical behavior, and leadership's suppression of dissent, free speech, academic freedom, and whistle-blowing were related to their intentions to leave due to dissatisfaction.

These results suggest the hypothesis that much of faculty angst may be due to the sorts of problems with leadership and hence organizational culture that we discuss on Health Care Renewal.  Since this was a cross-sectional survey, it certainly does not offer scientific proof of this hypothesis.  Note that there is other evidence from numerous cases discussed in Health Care Renewal, qualitative studies and our much smaller study published only in abstract form that also supports this hypothesis (look here). 

One part of the author's discussion of their findings was particularly relevant:

Our findings are congruent with metaanalyses of 25 years of organizational justice research outside medicine. These studies suggest that employee perceptions of organizational justice and an ethical climate are related to increased job satisfaction, trust in leadership, enhanced performance, commitment to one’s employer, and reduced turnover.

 The scale of ethical/moral distress (see Table 1) reflects reactions to the prevailing norms and possible erosion of professionalism and increased organizational self-interest. There is a growing belief that organizations influence and are responsible for the ethical or unethical behaviors of their employees.To our knowledge, faculty perceptions of 'moral atmosphere' and 'just community' embedded in our survey have not been previously investigated in academic medicine, even though the ethical concepts of professionalism and justice can be used to guide the pursuit of excellence in the missions of medical schools. Several scholars have called for academic medicine to attend to its social justice and moral mission. Faculty perceptions
of organizational justice are pivotal to the critical issue of professionalism in medicine. The ethical/moral distress scale in the survey reported here included items such as 'the culture of my institution discourages altruism' and 'I find working here to be dehumanizing.' (See Table 1 for other items in this scale.) In that ethical/moral distress was more strongly related to intent to leave academic medicine entirely than intent to leave one’s own institution, these negative feelings among faculty must be particularly disheartening to them and may color major career decisions.
I believe that the study by Pololi et al adds to the evidence that physician distress is a symptom of a dysfunctional system in which major health care organizations have been taken over by leaders more devoted to self-interest and short-term revenue than the values prized by health care professionals and academics.  This applies obviously to academic medical institutions, but also to other organizations that might have been expected to defend such professional and academic values, such as professional associations, accrediting organizations, and health care foundations.  As we said before, if physicians really want to address what is making them burned out and dissatisfied, they will have to regain control of their own societies, organizations, and academic institutions, and ensure that these organizations put core values, not revenue generation and providing  cushy compensation to their executives, first.  

1 comment:

Gloria said...

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Moshen Zargar