Addressing the Concept of ‘Moral Injury’

This post was originally featured in ARRS InPractice.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the pre-existing epidemic of stress, distress, dis-ease and burnout in our profession—and across the country. Contributors to workplace stress in radiology have been further compounded as we grapple to provide safe care to our patients, keep our teams healthy, uphold social distancing requirements, support, sustain, and engage remote teams, deploy effective communication strategies, and cultivate diverse and high-performing teams. People across the country are fighting silent battles against chronic anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders during any given workday.

Prior to the pandemic, we heard frequent reference to the hamster wheel environment in which we work; expectations of ever increasing workloads and so-called quality metrics driving us to work faster and longer hours all while meeting ever increasing regulatory requirements. Not surprisingly, the consequences of just trying to keep up include burnout, and the field of radiology is still seeking solutions to mitigate our recognized high incidence.

However, in parallel with burnout is the growing focus on mitigating known stressors, those that establish a genuine conflict between our core values as care-providing physicians and our daily activities in the trenches. This is the reality of the so-called moral distress and injury, which is frequently associated with burnout. To me, this implies that we as individuals are unable to balance work expectations against personal resources—that, somehow, we are failing at what we “should” be doing and achieving. There is a growing school of thought that the symptoms of burnout simply reflect a healthcare delivery system in need of urgent repair. The moral insults and injury of healthcare is not being able to provide the high quality of care that we would want to, thus highlighting the opportunity to address what is contributing to this state. And the consequences are dire: physician suicide rates are now twice that of active-duty military members. Now more than ever, it is clear that we must reprioritize employee wellness efforts and implement additional strategies to protect and support our workforce.

Treating the Cause

To effect lasting change, we must reshift our focus and address the cause rather than the symptoms. While appreciated and beneficial in their own right, wellness programs, flexible schedules, extra time off, and other employee benefits oftentimes treat the short-term symptoms, not the long-term cause.

Relaxation practices, exercise, vacation, mindfulness activities and meditation might be extremely effective at resolving some symptoms on a temporary basis, at least until that time that we are back trying to balance on the hamster wheel. To address the causes, we need brave and effective leaders who are willing to question and confront the constellation of drivers, and who recognize and respect the fourth component of the quadruple aim of healthcare (care of the patient requires care of the provider). We must excavate the problem that is moral injury until its origins become clear.

Numerous factors detract from what we believe is our primary mission and contribute to such injury, including the profit-driven healthcare environment, electronic health records and productivity metrics, provider review sites, litigation concerns, turnaround time targets, and the ever-expanding regulatory mandates. Here I refer to practices mandated by regulatory agencies such as audits, documentation expectations, annual testing, and of course, the unpopular practice of peer review.

Let’s consider peer review as our low hanging fruit here. This is a process that in radiology is often known for being onerous, burdensome, distracting, divisive, resource-intensive, inefficient, and ineffective. In my experience, it can be difficult to use peer review as a driver for meaningful and impactful improvement.

However, the concept persists, in large part due to meeting accreditation and reimbursement requirements. As radiologists, we are expected to devote time to rank the diagnostic skills of our colleagues. During this process, targeting occurs, under-reporting is rampant, and job security might be impacted, yet challenging the status quo is difficult. Despite evidence that radiologists make errors almost 30% of the time, national peer review data reports fewer than 5% of these discrepancies. Is this practice truly an effective use of our time and skills?

Forging a New Path

Peer learning and improvement offers us an enormous opportunity to remove a mandated hurdle to our work-related distresses; it also allows us to embrace an emerging practice that will provide new learning and improvement opportunities. Today, I’d like to give a loud shout-out to the many peer learning trailblazers out there, including: David Larson, Richard Sharpe, Jennifer Broder, Nadja Kadom, Lane Donnelly, Mythreyi Chatfied, Andrew Moriarty, and Richard Heller. And this cohort is growing rapidly.

Now is an ideal time for the field of radiology to commit to taking the necessary steps to embrace peer learning in our practices. This will be a journey that many have commenced, along varied paths, influenced by practice patterns and cultures. In some practices, this will require cultural transformations, so that staff are willing to speak up safely in a Just Culture without fear of consequences. It will require hospital administrators to embrace all components of peer learning as meeting local OPPE requirements. It will require that the focus shift from scoring diagnostic discrepancies to identifying learning and improvement opportunities, and that participation is expected. In fact, willing participation could replace annual denominators altogether. Peer learning leaders could be identified and appropriately trained, and their work acknowledged as a vital part of our performance improvement processes. Most important, the American College of Radiology (ACR) has now approved a new pathway for ACR-accredited facilities to meet the Physician Quality Assurance program requirement, opening a path for practices to embrace this learning and improvement and non-punitive approach, thus no longer needing to use a score-based approach.

I started this column addressing the additive impacts of the pandemic on our preexisting stressors and burnout numbers. I highlighted the growing recognition that the so-called moral injury is an additional and major contributor to our current distress. Transitioning from retrospective peer review to prospective peer learning practices is one superb example of how we can mitigate a known contributor and provide what will, hopefully, be some major relief to our radiologists. This could allow our colleagues to participate in a process that is likely to positively impact our performance and the quality of care that we deliver. Because, ultimately, I believe that’s why we are all here.

About the Author
Jonathan Kruskal

Melvin E. Clouse Professor of Radiology, Harvard Medical School
Chair, Department of Radiology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

The opinions expressed on RadTeams are those of the author(s); they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or position of the editors, reviewers, or publisher.