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Physician Burnout Accounts for Many Cases of Medical Negligence Every Year

It may surprise some to know that doctor burnout is actually a much bigger factor in medical errors than even unsafe conditions. According to a new study conducted by researchers at Stanford, doctor burnout is a national medical epidemic that severely impacts patient safety.  In fact, since 2013, the amount of medical malpractice claims paid in Georgia has risen consistently.

In a recent study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers surveyed more than 3,500 physicians, and found that as many as 55 percent of the physicians reported symptoms of burnout. Ten percent of the doctors also reported making at least one major medical error in the previous three months. Upon analysis, the Stanford researchers found that doctors who suffered from burnout had more than twice the level of self-reported errors, compared to doctors who did not report burnout.

Even more interesting was the finding that doctors in high-performing units that had a very highly-rated work environment reported a level of errors nearly three times as high as those compared to other doctors. This indicates that doctor stress is an even greater medical error risk than unsafe conditions.

This is not the first study that points to a clear link between the exhaustion that comes with physical and mental stress (also known as burnout) and an increased risk of making medical errors. Stress and burnout is a serious epidemic in the medical community, and earlier studies have indicated that as many as 50 percent of all doctors suffer from symptoms of burnout. These symptoms of stress and exhaustion include constant fatigue, tiredness, mental and emotional stress, and feelings of ineffectiveness.   These feelings often lead to lack of motivation and low morale, both factors that could increase the risk of a potentially serious medical error.

The effect of burnout can be seen not just in the doctor’s work, but also in his overall mental health. Physicians work in one of the most suicide-prone occupations in the United States with rates of suicides involving doctors skyrocketing, compared to workers in other professions,

If we are to increase patient safety levels, then it is important to make appropriate changes to the culture of medical occupations to reduce the impact and effect of burnout on patient safety.   This culture starts early on as in medical school and residency program, physicians are expected to work long hours, oftentimes sacrificing their personal lives.  This culture is then carried on in hospitals which only sets up physicians for a very stressful professional life.  Resolving the problem of doctor burnout can be challenging.  While many hospitals invest in stricter hygiene protocols and safer hospital conditions, they do not invest as much on the health of their physicians.

Many hospitals in Georgia have fortunately invested in modifying the work culture and lessening pressure on physicians. Some hospitals have invested in wellness and health programs that include meditation and deep breathing programs, yoga and aerobics classes, and other programs to help boost mood and morale, and lower feelings of stress.