In a first for U.S. academic medical center, Stanford Medicine hires chief physician wellness officer

Tait Shanafelt, MD, will become Stanford Medicine’s first chief wellness officer at a time when physician burnout is a national epidemic.

Tait Shanafelt

Tait Shanafelt, MD, a nationally recognized expert in physician wellness, will join Stanford Medicine as its first chief wellness officer, effective Sept. 1, leading the medical center’s pioneering program in the field.

His appointment makes Stanford the first academic medical center in the country to create a position of chief wellness officer at a time when physician burnout nationally has reached an all-time high. Shanafelt, whose clinical work and research focus on the treatment of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, will direct the WellMD Center at Stanford Medicine and serve as associate dean of the School of Medicine.

He comes from the Mayo Clinic, where he led a successful initiative to counter burnout and improve physicians’ sense of fulfillment and well-being.

“I am delighted to welcome Tait, who is an international thought leader and researcher in the field of physician wellness and its implications on quality of care,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “He brings an unmatched set of accomplishments and capabilities to these new roles and an inspiring vision to firmly establish Stanford Medicine as the national leader in physician wellness.”

Leading the way

Shanafelt has literally led the way in the field. Since 2008, he has overseen multiple national surveys that included more than 30,000 U.S. physicians and about 9,000 U.S. workers in other fields. These found increasing rates of burnout among doctors; in 2014, more than half of those surveyed were suffering from emotional exhaustion, loss of meaning in work or a sense of ineffectiveness and a lack of engagement with patients. Moreover, his studies have found that as physicians suffer, so do patients: Burnout has been found to contribute to physician errors, higher mortality among hospitalized patients and less compassionate care. It is a trend, he said, that is “eroding the soul of medicine.”

An individual organization that is committed to this at the highest level of leadership and that invests in well-designed interventions can move the needle and run counter to the national trend of physician distress and burnout.

“I think most health care leaders now realize this is a threat to their organization, but there is also uncertainty that they can do anything effective to address it,” Shanafelt said. “They say, ‘It’s a national epidemic, what can we do?’ My experience has shown that an individual organization that is committed to this at the highest level of leadership and that invests in well-designed interventions can move the needle and run counter to the national trend of physician distress and burnout. I hope that the Stanford WellMD Center becomes a paragon that other medical centers want to emulate.”

Shanafelt said he first became interested in the issue while a senior resident at the University of Washington. While leading a team of young physicians whom he described as dedicated and altruistic, he observed that some responded to the needs of their patients in a way that seemed out of character. He decided to study the experience of residency training and published a pioneering study in 2001 showing that burnout among residents was impacting the quality of the care they delivered. The widely publicized study became a “lightning rod,” he said, opening up a national dialogue on the issue.

“It became clear that we had identified a big problem that needed a methodologic and consistent approach to studying and defining it and to testing interventions and trying to move the needle,” he said.

Declining burnout rates at Mayo

He went on to the Mayo Clinic as a hematology and oncology fellow and joined the faculty there in 2005. In 2008, he became director of the Department of Medicine Program on Physician Well-Being and launched an effort to address physician distress through programs promoting physician autonomy, efficiency, collegiality and a sense of community. While many were focused on strategies to make individual physicians more resilient, Shanafelt and his team focused on systems, the practice environment, organizational culture, and leadership. As a result, the absolute burnout rates among Mayo physicians declined 7 percent over two years, despite an 11 percent rise in the rate among physicians nationally using identical metrics, surveys showed. A more recent assessment found the burnout rate among Mayo physicians was about two-thirds that of physicians nationally.

Shanafelt will work in collaboration with his new colleagues at Stanford in building on its innovative WellMD Center, which was established in 2016. The center has engaged more than 200 physicians through programs focusing on peer support, stress reduction and ways to cultivate compassion and resilience, as well as a literature and a dinner series in which physicians explore the challenges and rewards of being a doctor. The center also aims to relieve some of the burden on physicians by improving efficiency and simplifying workplace systems, such as electronic medical records.

In October, the center will host the first American Conference on Physician Health, in San Francisco, co-sponsored by the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic.

Bryan Bohman, MD, the center’s interim director, said the WellMD team has worked closely with Shanafelt over the past year on projects of mutual interest.

“All of us at the center have been struck by Tait’s collaborative nature, his integrity, his warmth, his generosity of spirit and his work ethic,” said Bohman, chief medical officer for Stanford’s University Healthcare Alliance. “Both at Mayo and nationally — in the physician wellness community — Tait is seen as an inspiring and strong leader. We couldn’t be happier that he will be guiding our future wellness work at Stanford.”

David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care, and Christopher Dawes, president and CEO of Packard Children’s Hospital and Stanford Children’s Health, both expressed strong support for Shanafelt’s appointment as the leader of Stanford Medicine’s wellness effort.

In addition to his work in physician well-being, Shanafelt is an international expert in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He is directing multiple clinical trials testing new treatments for this disease, is the principal investigator for several grants from the National Institutes of Health and is a member of the Leukemia Steering Committee of the National Cancer Institute. He said he plans to continue his work on leukemia at Stanford, devoting about 30 percent of his time to clinical research and the care of patients with the disease.

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