Doctor Burnout Widespread, Helps Drive Many Medical Errors

The headline above comes from a July 9, 2018, article on HealthDay, and is based on a study published the same day in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The Mayo Clinic Proceedings study is titled “Physician Burnout, Well-being, and Work Unit Safety Grades in Relationship to Reported Medical Errors” and listed the study objective as “To evaluate physician burnout, well-being, and work unit safety grades in relationship to perceived major medical errors.”

An ABC News article, also on the same day, reported that according to the Institute of Medicine, medical errors account for between 100,000 to 200,000 deaths per year. They define burnout as emotional exhaustion or depersonalization and note that it occurs in more than half of the over 6600 doctor’s surveyed.

Lead study author Dr. Daniel Tawfik, an instructor in pediatric critical care at Stanford University’s School of Medicine stated, “Burnout is a reversible work-related syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion and/or cynicism, often featuring decreased effectiveness.” He added, “Although not unique to physicians, it is particularly common in occupations like medicine that feature high levels of stress and intense interactions with people.”

In this study, researchers stated that they, “…conducted a population-based survey of US physicians in active practice regarding burnout, fatigue, suicidal ideation, work unit safety grade, and recent medical errors.” Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine collected data from an anonymous survey of 6,686 physicians who were in practice and responded to the survey. The doctors were asked to complete questionnaires that included questions about their levels of burnout, well-being, fatigue and symptoms of depression. They were also asked to grade the safety of their workplace and anonymously give information on any major medical errors they may have made.

The results of the study were shocking. Over 10% of the responding doctors claimed they had made a major medical error in the past three months, with 1 in 20 of these errors being fatal. The study itself reported, “Of 6695 responding physicians in active practice, 6586 provided information on the areas of interest: 3574 (54.3%) reported symptoms of burnout, 2163 (32.8%) reported excessive fatigue, and 427 (6.5%) reported recent suicidal ideation, with 255 of 6563 (3.9%) reporting a poor or failing patient safety grade in their primary work area and 691 of 6586 (10.5%) reporting a major medical error in the prior 3 months.”

The medical errors that can occur from medical burnout are not insignificant. Dr. Tawfik noted that, “When a physician is experiencing burnout, a wide range of adverse events may occur. In our study, the most common errors were errors in medical judgment, errors in diagnosing illness, and technical mistakes during procedures.”

In their conclusion, the study authors acknowledge the problem and call for a solution. “In this large national study, physician burnout, fatigue, and work unit safety grades were independently associated with major medical errors. Interventions to reduce rates of medical errors must address both physician well-being and work unit safety.”

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