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Burned Out Doctors Putting Patients at Risk for Medical Errors

Today, medical professionals across all specialties experiencing high rates of burnout, exhaustion, and depression. This unfortunate reality puts the health of the medical staff at risk and jeopardizes patient safety. As occupational stress levels rise, the number of medical errors is also increasing. Errors lead to serious harm, and in some cases, death in some cases.

We are making huge advancements in technology and medical knowledge. It is important that we also address and are aware of the issue of burnout. We need to ensure that doctors continue to provide patients with quality care.

Burnout by the Numbers

According to the numbers, the majority of those working in the medical profession are experiencing high levels of stress. In fact, of the 6,586 physicians that responded to a study published in 2018, 54.3% reported symptoms of burnout. These symptoms include:

  • Emotional exhaustion,
  • Low quality of life,
  • Depersonalization,
  • Frustration, and
  • A low sense of personal accomplishment.

Additionally, 45% of the respondents reported excessive fatigue and 6.5% reported suicidal ideation.

Causes of Doctor Burnout

Medical professionals have difficult work situations that are conducive to burnout. The country’s healthcare system is one of the main culprits. Physicians are required to spend more hours doing data entry than ever before.

Under new regulations, doctors must follow complicated rules. Their time is spent on creating and updating electronic health records. Physicians report that they spend twice as much time on administrative paperwork than they do treating patients. This has a direct correlation with symptoms of burnout.

Moreover, the work environment is becoming increasingly stressful for physicians. Doctors face long work days, high anxiety, time pressure, and emotionally draining interactions. As a result, physicians are under pressure to treat patients as customers. Medical professionals are encouraged to put efficiency and profitability over patient care. Doctors become disillusioned and experience a clash between their morals and the reality of the profession.

Results of Doctor Burnout

The cost of mental fatigue has serious implications for patients. Physicians experiencing burnout are less likely to be attentive to their patients. Depressed and fatigued doctors are more easily exasperated by their patients. They become less friendly and are not as engaged. Doctors are more likely to leave their practice, leaving patients without continuity of care.

More troubling than an unfriendly encounter with a doctor, tired and depressed doctors make more mistakes. Studies show that a doctor suffering from burnout is close to three times more likely to commit an error. In fact, burnout is more dangerous for patients than unsafe medical workplace conditions. In addition, depressed doctors report they are more likely to make mistakes due to their mental condition.

Types of Errors Committed by Doctors

Burnout leads to doctors working less efficiently and less effectively. Fatigued and depressed physicians commit errors in judgment, issue wrong diagnoses, and make technical mistakes during procedures. Doctors are also making mistakes with patients’ medication. These errors include wrong prescriptions, or ordering medication for the wrong patient.

Medical errors are one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In one estimate, errors by medical professionals has led to 100,000 to 200,000 deaths each year. In a 2018 study, ten percent of doctors reported that they made at least one major error within the last year. While these numbers are troubling, doctors likely underreport their errors. In reality, 10% to 30% of autopsies have evidence of misdiagnoses.

While errors are common, not all mistakes are catastrophic. In the 2018 study of the profession, 55% of the errors reported did not affect the patient. Yet, 4.5% of the errors lead to the death of the patient. Another 5.3% of errors resulted in major permanent morbidity. 10.3% caused major temporary morbidity.

Options for Patients

Until substantial changes are made in the medical field, what can a patient do in light of this reality? It is natural to be concerned that your doctor is suffering from burnout. Do not be afraid to speak up or to seek medical care elsewhere. Keep track of your own medical records and take note of any issues as they arise. Check your prescriptions and ask questions to ensure you understand your treatment options.

If you or someone has been harmed during treatment, contact a medical malpractice attorney. A professional will investigate the circumstances. They may be able to determine if there was a medical error and recommend the best course of action.

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