A recent study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reveals that 54% of American physicians report feeling burnt out at work. Lead study author, Stanford pediatric physician Daniel S. Tawfik, and his team found that those experiencing burnout were TWO times as likely to have made a major medical error in the last 3 months. Study authors also believe that based on this information, 1/3 of all American physicians are experiencing burnout at any given time. Researchers describe burnout as “emotional exhaustion or cynicism.”
The study questioned 6,586 physicians in active practice at an American hospital or clinic and asked them to report feelings of burnout, excessive fatigue, recent suicidal thoughts, their thoughts on patient safety on the unit in which they primarily work, as well as those who had made a major medical error. The authors found:
- 54.3% of physicians admitted feeling burnt out
- 32.8% of physicians said they felt excessive fatigue
- 6.5% of physicians reported recent suicidal thoughts
- 3.9% of physicians believe their unit deserved a poor or failing patient safety grade
- 10.5% of physicians admitted to a “major medical error” in the last 3 months
The most common medical errors that doctors admitted to were:
- Errors in medical judgment
- Missed Diagnosis or Misdiagnosis
- Mistakes made during a test or procedure
The study did not question physicians about the number of deaths caused by medical mistakes, nor the types of injuries that resulted from mistakes.
Leading Causes of Death: Heart Attack, Cancer, Medical Errors
The direct link between burnout and medical errors is not groundbreaking, but the percentage of physicians experiencing it certainly is. Based on their research, the study authors found that M.D.s who reported burnout as an issue at their hospital or clinic made three times as medical mistakes than those physicians who didn’t report burnout as an issue where they worked.
The sheer prevalence of physician burnout is a sobering statistic, given that a major study by Johns Hopkins earlier this year found medical mistakes as the 3rd leading cause of death in this country. The top two causes are exactly as one might expect: Heart attack and cancer. Much money and research has been devoted to raising awareness and developing pharmaceuticals, tests, and treatments for these two conditions, but it seems that very few resources have been devoted to increasing awareness and providing help for those who have suffered or died from a medical mistake.
The other issue to consider is how to change a profession in which those tasked with saving lives report increased paperwork, less pay, more hours, and more responsibilities. The study’s lead author advises physicians to cut back on stress and to take care of themselves, as well as calling on hospitals to make changes to better support physicians.
Hospitals Must Start Supporting Physicians
Increasing patient safety and reducing lawsuits from medical mistakes are always at the forefront of the minds of those who work in risk management at hospitals. Hopefully this study motivates hospitals to invest in their physicians on the front end by increasing support programs and reducing paperwork through implementing e-record systems that quickly intake patient information, accurately reflecting their medical record and catching things like prescription interactions and dosing mistakes. No one wants to see a physician struggle to keep up or perform to the best of their abilities. Especially when that physician is yours.
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