Doctors’ Mental Health Can Lead to Serious Medical Errors

It’s estimated that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. But what causes medical mistakes that harm patients?  One major contributor that may be overlooked is physician burnout.

The Stanford University School of Medicine in July published the findings of its study on the role that doctor burnout and fatigue played in causing medical errors.  (“Physician Burnout, Well-being, and Work Unit Safety Grades in Relationship to Reported Medical Errors”)

Researchers surveyed nearly 6,700 U.S. physicians.  The makeup of the physicians mirrored the demographic and specialty cross-sections of U.S. physicians as a whole.  The researchers also reviewed the physicians’ workplaces for potential triggers of preventable medical errors.

They found that the mental health of doctors has a profound impact on the safety of their patients.

Burned Out Doctors Responsible for Fatal Mistakes

The survey determined that physician burnout is at least equally responsible for preventable medical mistakes as unsafe medical workplaces, like those that are not clean or where healthcare teams have poor communication and teamwork.

More than half of the doctors surveyed – 55 percent – relayed feelings of burnout.  And 10 percent said they had made at least one serious medical error within the previous three months. About one out every 20 of those medical errors was fatal.

Common Medical Errors Made Due to Burnout and Fatigue

The most common serious medical errors the physicians made were:

·         Error in judgment – 39 percent

·         Wrong diagnosis – 20 percent

·         Technical mistake during a procedure – 13 percent

·         Wrong drug or drug dosage – 8 percent

Doctors suffering from burnout were twice as likely to make medical mistakes as those who did not.  Doctors reporting signs of fatigue had a 38 percent greater chance to commit medical errors.  And medical work units – even those deemed safe – experienced triple the number of major medical errors when burned out doctors worked in them.

The rate of physician burnout found in this survey is similar to one reported earlier this year in Medscape’s “Physician’s Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2018,” which found 42 percent of responding doctors reporting being burned out. (It was 51 percent in the 2017 report.)  The report also showed that physicians in critical care, neurology and family medicine experienced the highest burnout rates.

Physician fatigue and burnout are acknowledged contributors to medical errors.  Doctors and their employers have a responsibility to ensure that patients are not knowingly exposed to these real and present dangers.

If you had a loved one die due to serious mistakes in care, contact a medical malpractice attorney to investigate and hold accountable all those responsible.

The choice of a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely on advertisements.

Authored by Gray, Ritter & Graham, P.C., posted in Blog August 9, 2018