Doctor burnout can cause major medical errors, study says

About 10 percent of doctors surveyed said they had made at least one major medical error

Your doctor’s own well-being can have an effect on the care you receive. In fact, physicians who are burned out can cause major medical errors, according to a new report.

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Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine recently conducted a study, published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, to evaluate doctor burnout and work safety in relation to medical errors. Previous studies estimate that medical errors are responsible for 100,000 to 200,000 deaths each year in the United States.

"If we are trying to maximize the safety and quality of medical care, we must address the factors in the work environment that lead to burnout among our health care providers," coauthor Tait Shanafelt said in a statement.

For the assessment, the analysts surveyed physicians in active practice across the U.S., and nearly 6,700 people replied. Of the responses, 55 percent reported symptoms of burnout, which can include exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of reduced effectiveness. Furthermore, 10 percent they had made at least one major medical error during the prior three months.

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“We found that physicians with burnout had more than twice the odds of self-reported medical error, after adjusting for specialty, work hours, fatigue and work unit safety rating,” coauthor Daniel Tawfik explained. “We also found that low safety grades in work units were associated with three to four times the odds of medical error.”

Their research also showed that rates of self-reported medical errors tripled in medical work units, even “extremely safe” ones, if doctors working on that unit had high levels of burnout. Therefore, the scientists believe burnout level and work unit safety are both factors for medical error risk.

“Up until just recently, the prevailing thought was that if medical errors are occurring, you need to fix the workplace safety with things like checklists and better teamwork,” Tawfik said. “This study shows that that is probably insufficient. We need a two-pronged approach to reduce medical errors that also addresses physician burnout.”

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