How digital humans may help combat burnout among healthcare staff

The world owes a huge debt to healthcare workers. Here's how we can start supporting them through AI.

May 19, 2021
How digital humans may help combat burnout among healthcare staff

The world owes a huge debt to healthcare workers. The start of this decade has led to some of the toughest working conditions imaginable, as healthcare workers of all kinds battled against the pandemic.

It’s no doubt been an incredibly testing time for those in the medical sector. But the truth is, burnout among healthcare staff has been an epidemic of its own for some time.

Before we delve into how many healthcare professionals suffer from burnout, let’s define exactly what it is.

Burnout is beyond being exhausted. Burnt-out employees are often characterized by becoming apathetic, listless and unable to cope. It’s chronic exhaustion to the point when even a break won’t recharge the batteries.

For any employee, burnout is a severe risk to mental and physical health. For people whose careers make them responsible for the lives of others, those risks have the potential to be much more damaging.

After all, listlessness, and apathy are not the traits any essential worker would wish to suffer from – nor characteristics any patient would want in their healthcare professional.

Which begs the question: how widespread is the issue today?

How bad is burnout among healthcare workers today?

Last year, around 43% of physicians said they were suffering from burnout, climbing as high as 54% in professions such as anesthesiologists.

Rewind to 2013 and 26% of physicians reported being burnt out. Almost a third of these professionals (28%) said they were intending to leave their jobs as a result of stress, overwork and burnout within two years.

Two years later, around half of those (13%) had done so.

Those aren’t arbitrary figures, particularly in an industry that needs more staff, not less. The healthcare industry in the US alone will need 11.6 million workers by 2026 to fill new jobs and replace those who retire.

No one solution is going to solve the long-standing, worsening problem of burnout among medical professionals. Nor will any technology solely fix the employment gap that threatens to grow larger – please don’t think we’re claiming this.

But we do foresee a future where conversational AI will help more and more in healthcare settings. And (we hope) where digital humans in their many forms will play a part in ironing out these challenges.

How digital humans are designed to help

According to Accenture, artificial intelligence can cover 20% of the projected shortfall in healthcare workers – while saving $150 billion a year for the industry as a whole.

AI is a broad term, and it won’t just be conversational AI that fills this gap.

Robot-assisted surgery, tools to better identify participants for clinical trials, systems to reduce dosage errors, cybersecurity software, diagnosis automation technologies and so many other machines will play a role. The upside for healthcare execs is that these AI technologies don’t just think for themselves but pay for themselves too, or so says the same Accenture study.

The aim of digital humans is to put a human face at the front of any machine that needs one, so patients, staff and any other people can have a more human, one-to-one experience.

That experience isn’t just at face value, if you’ll pardon the pun. There’s a growing body of research that explains what happens when you put a more human experience at the front of AI systems.

For example, the University of Southern California researched how their virtual assistant Ellie affected diagnoses of PTSD among returning veterans. Rather than military veterans returning from conflict zones and filling out anonymous questionnaires, designed to identify signs of PTSD, they could speak to Ellie.

Conversations with her subsequently helped the researchers identify more signs of post-traumatic stress. The veterans were more open with Ellie because she could never pass judgement on them – she benefits from being not human.

It’s one creative example of how technology can be used to help patients, but also healthcare workers – particularly those who are overworked and at severe risk of burning out – by taking some of the load.

A range of AI technologies – from chatbots, voice assistants and digital humans – are forming what’s known as a digital workforce, where human staff are supported by tools of various types to suit the position patients are in.

For example, chatbots and voice assistants can give quick and convenient information on the go. Digital humans can provide more friendliness and warmth with automated tasks when needed – for example explaining medication or giving dietary advice.

Telehealth can connect patients with real doctors virtually, while actual medical facilities can continue to handle much needed in-person medical treatment.

Among a number of growing healthcare industry technology trends, it’s how they work together that will help to ease the most troublesome challenges. When it comes to confronting healthcare worker burnout, it’s arguably never been more necessary to find a solution – especially considering the profound role these professionals have had on public health over the past year.

How else AI can help?

The reason Accenture predicts AI being such a supportive tool for health workers stretches beyond patient interfaces that can help save medical professionals time.

AI is helping to create faster, more accurate MRI scans; it's helping to analyse viruses, in one case cutting down on months of research around ebola; and it's providing counselling and judgement-free mental health support around the clock for people in a range of stressful industries.

There are too many applications to list – and probably even more examples to come. Artificial intelligence is the future of healthcare. And instead of seeing the risk posed to healthcare professionals, we believe it's time we start seeing the benefits technology can provide to those same people, to whom we owe a real debt.

We’d love to hear if we can help

One of the ways AI can get wider acceptance in the healthcare sector is by making it look, sound and interact much less robotically.

We now live in a world of experiential AI, when patients can interact more naturally with technology – when technology can show warmth, friendliness and empathy back. Just as important is how this technology can protect the health and wellbeing or real people working in healthcare at the same time.

There’s much more to explore on this topic, and we’d love to share our experience with you to better serve your staff and patients. If our AI experts or partner network can help, just get in touch.