Nine Percent of Surgeons Have Made ‘Major’ Errors Recently

The above is the headline from a Wall Street Journal article on November 23, 2009 reporting on a study that surveyed surgeons on their perceptions of job burn-out. A similar article titled, “Burned Out, Depressed Surgeons More Likely to Commit More Major Medical Errors” also appeared on November 23 in Science Daily. Both articles were based on research published in the September issue of Annals of Surgery, entitled, “Burnout and Career Satisfaction Among American Surgeons”.

The study was in the form of a survey of surgeons who were asked questions about their jobs and mental health. Surprisingly 40% of surgeons responding to the survey said they were burned out. The study also showed that 30% screened positive for symptoms of depression, and 28% had mental scores below the population norm.

The Wall Street Journal article reported that nine percent of surgeons said they were concerned they had made a “major medical error” in the past three months. The study also noted that only 36% of surgeons felt their work schedule left enough time for personal/family life and only 51% would recommend their children pursue a career as a physician/surgeon.

Charles M. Balch, M.D., a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the study’s leaders commented, “People have talked about fatigue and long working hours, but our results indicate that the dominant contributors to self-reported medical errors are burnout and depression. All of us need to take this into account to a greater degree than in the past. Frankly, burnout and depression hadn’t been on everybody’s radar screen.”

The study, however, was unable to determine whether stress created the errors, or the errors created stress. The authors wrote, “Since the present study is cross-sectional, we are unable to determine whether distress causes errors or errors cause distress. The findings are consistent with previous prospective studies in internal medicine and pediatric residents which demonstrate an increased risk of future medical errors among distressed physicians and imply that surgeon distress is a contributing factor to medical errors as well as a consequence.”

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