A new study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the US has found that physician burnout is at least equally as responsible for medical errors as unsafe medical workplace conditions, if not more so. The study will be published online in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
“If we are trying to maximise the safety and quality of medical care, we must address the factors in the work environment that lead to burnout among our healthcare providers,” said Dr Tait Shanafelt, Director of the Stanford WellMD Center and Associate Dean of the School of Medicine. “Many system-level changes have been implemented to improve safety for patients in our medical workplaces. What we find in this study is that physician burnout levels appear to be equally, if not more, important than the work unit safety score to the risk of medical errors occurring.”
The researchers sent surveys to physicians in the US and found that 55 per cent of those who responded (3,574 people) reported symptoms of burnout. In addition, 10 per cent of respondents said that they had made at least one major medical error during the prior three months. “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,” said Daniel Tawfik, lead author of the study. "We also found that low safety grades in work units were associated with three to four times the odds of medical error."
The study also found that rates of medical errors tripled in medical work units, even those ranked as extremely safe, if physicians working on that unit had high levels of burnout. “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,” Dr 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.”