April 2024

How Can AI Address Burnout in Vet Med?

By Dr. Sonja Olson & Dr. Liz Barton

Burnout is an increasingly hot topic in veterinary medicine, and rightly so considering the high incidence.1,2 The negative impacts on individual and team well-being and performance, and the resulting potential detriment to the financial bottom line due to reduced productivity and increased staff turnover, are all causes for concern.3 It is also our moral duty to protect and support our wonderful veterinary team members in a profession facing a smorgasbord of challenges. With increasing attention given to the rise in artificial intelligence (AI) across sectors, we were curious to explore if this mysterious black box of technology might provide some of the answers and novel strategies to address the known contributors to veterinary occupational stress, or potentially exacerbate the problems.

What contributes to burnout?

The World Health Organization describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It can include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, negativity and decreased engagement leading to reduced professional efficacy.”4

Key to this is the fact that burnout is a workplace issue. Previous research has identified various factors contributing to burnout in veterinary medicine, including heavy workload, team conflict, compassion fatigue, and the emotional toll of euthanasia.5 So, will AI help us manage stressors more effectively in veterinary practices? As with most technology, AI has the potential to both help and hinder working life. How we engage with and deploy the various tools available will determine the impact on our teams, clients, and patients.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Time and workload
On any given day, one might have the distinct feeling of not enough available minutes to complete the tasks that require our attention and involvement at home and at work. The triage of these precious minutes often diminishes the importance of time allocation for doing the work, plus the energy resets, self-care, knowledge intake and integration that are all essential to our overall health and professional satisfaction. Incorporation of technology and AI can support efficiency and allocation of human resources, which may result in time savings for individuals and teams.

With the assistance of AI, workload can be reduced in both clinical and administrative tasks. Automation of diagnostics not only reduces the time it takes for manual preparation and interpretation, but it may also improve accuracy, speed, and reduce cost, improving patient outcomes and increasing financial access to care.

It is also ideal for automation of repetitive administrative tasks such as form filling, inventory management, scheduling appointments, updating patient records, and billing. As the technology advances, it can assist more complex, laborious tasks such as creation of practice policies, employment ads, website and social media content, client handouts, training protocols, and client communications.

Cognitive load
The field of AI is expanding rapidly into decision-trees for case management, helping to relieve the stress of decision fatigue. Human medicine is heading towards the creation of platforms that can support treatment plan creation to develop personalized treatment plans for each patient, improving patient care, outcomes, and overall medical safety. This in turn not only reduces stress, but we all love to see patients get better, boosting emotions, motivation, and job satisfaction.

Additionally, there are more veterinary-centric tools being created to support efficient, accurate medical record and client communication writing. This can diminish the anxiety around forgetting details in a conversation and the additional work time of writing up medical records at the end of a shift.

Compassion Fatigue, Moral Distress and Euthanasia
Where AI has the potential to improve patient outcomes through optimizing diagnosis and management, this may in turn reduce compassion fatigue and the moral injury associated with economic euthanasia. AI can help to make veterinary care more affordable and accessible to pet owners both financially limited and in underserved areas. For example, AI-powered chatbots can provide basic veterinary advice to pet owners remotely, and AI-powered diagnostic tools can be used in mobile clinics.

Faster, more affordable diagnostics and the potential for more targeted, optimized treatment protocols in the future mean there is hope for reducing the likelihood of economic euthanasias. Where euthanasia is the right care pathway, AI may help in the decision-making process to alleviate some of the emotional burden shouldered by the veterinarian and owner.

Conflict and Empathy Fatigue
Support of challenging conversations and providing mental health resources to clients and staff around grief/loss, euthanasia and other psychosocial concerns with caregiving could be a huge area of benefit. Empathy-driven, clear communication from AI platforms could go a long way to supporting healthy team and client interactions. Large language models, such as ChatGPT and Google’s Bard are already showing remarkable adaptability to mimic empathetic responses in the face of complex human emotions. Indeed, studies have shown that AI can outperform humans in some empathy-related tasks.6

AI may be able to reduce team conflict through the overall impact of saving time and optimizing scheduling, leaving more time for the clinical and caring roles that help veterinary professionals thrive. Language tools can also help to craft responses to handle difficult conversations, both within teams and with clients, reducing the emotional burden for the individual.

Could AI contribute to burnout?
While we have focused on the potential for AI to reduce the risk of burnout, it’s not a given that technology will always have a positive impact. AI presents many issues around ethics, data security, bias (both the potential to introduce bias through data, and automation bias – our tendency to over-trust the machine), reliability of the outputs, errors, and the overall and unpredictable impact on jobs and workload. These risks can potentially add to stress levels and may negatively impact patient outcomes.

To mitigate the risks of AI doing more harm than good, we need to educate ourselves with the background knowledge to assess and deploy AI tools in a way that benefits our team and patients. Veterinary professionals are well equipped to do this, looking for robust data source and use, transparent methods and an honest discussion of the potential benefits, risks and need for ongoing monitoring and research of the outputs. It behoves AI developers to make this process as clear and efficient as possible for the end user to ensure it’s a time-saving exercise overall, rather than time-wasting, and foster trust and engagement with the technology.

How can we make AI work for us?
In conclusion, the integration of AI into veterinary practice holds immense potential for improving our wellbeing in the workplace through optimizing our human resources, aiding communications, and improving outcomes for our patients. However, with the risk that AI may also negatively influence these factors, how can we ensure the net impact on us and our patients is positive?

By understanding AI technology and exploring the tools that are available to ensure they meet standards around transparency, data use and accuracy, we need to embrace a suite of tools that can augment us in practice life.

Embracing technological advancements paves the way for a future where the challenges of today become more manageable, allowing you to focus on what you do best – providing exceptional care to your animal patients. By collaborating with technology, AI can assist in the pursuit of a healthier and more fulfilling veterinary practice and more energy available for the rest of our lives. These are essential elements for both sustainable professional satisfaction and holistic well-being for veterinary professionals.

1. Ouedraogo FB, Lefebvre SL, Hansen CR, Brorsen BW. Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress among full-time veterinarians in the United States (2016–2018). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2021;258(11):1259-1270. doi: 10.2460/javma.258.11.1259.
2. Zakharenkov I. Veterinary Burnout Study: The Emotional Toll of Financial Stress, Work Environment, and Euthanasia, Galaxy Vets, Accessed February 2024.
3. Clinton NL, Hansen CR, Salois M. The Economic Cost of Burnout in Veterinary Medicine – Sec. Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics, Front Vet Sci 2022;9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2022.814104.
4. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases, May 2019, Accessed February 2024 at https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
5. Zakharenkov I, Veterinary Burnout Study: The Emotional Toll of Financial Stress, Work Environment, and Euthanasia, Galaxy Vets, 2023.
6. Sorin V. et al, Large Language Models (LLMs) and Empathy – A Systematic Review, medRxiv 2023.08.07.23293769; doi:
https://doi.org/10.1101/2023.08.07.23293769, August 2023

*Please note the opinions in this blog are the expressed opinion of the author(s), and not directly endorsed by VETgirl.

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