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Physician “Burnout” Linked to Patient Safety Risks, Worse Outcomes: Study

As more information is learned about the risk of physician “burnout”, a new study warns that doctors experiencing the problems may increase the safety risks for patients, worsen treatment outcomes and be more likely to engage in unprofessional conduct. 

In a study published this week in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from the U.K. found that physician burnout doubled the risk of medical mistakes and lowered patient satisfaction.

Researchers conducted an analysis of 47 studies involving more than 42,000 doctors. Among those, 21 studies were based on residents and early career physicians, 26 studies focused on experienced physicians, and the remaining were mixed skill studies. The majority were based on hospital doctors, but about one-quarter focused on primary care doctors.

Physician burnout generally includes emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, lack of personal accomplishment, and physical exhaustion. Researchers indicate that the majority of doctor burnout comes from excessive fatigue.

According to the findings, burnout was linked to a two-fold increased risk for unsafe patient care, increased risk of unprofessional behaviors, and low patient satisfaction. The majority of the risk was associated with symptoms of depression and emotional distress.

The study comes at a time when more and more doctors are experiencing burnout. A recent Mayo Clinic study indicated more than 50% of doctors experienced burnout, which may lead to unnecessary and preventable medical errors.

The rate of medical errors is tripled at hospitals where doctor burnout is a common problem, even if the environment was thought to be safe.

The findings of the new study indicated burnout was more common among residents and early career doctors. Early career doctors who experienced burnout had increased risk of behaving unprofessionally toward patients. This was more common for new doctors compared to doctors with more experience.

In addition to the risks to patients, doctor burnout can also lead to health risks for the physician as well. Burnout can lead to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, shorter life expectancy, problematic alcohol use, broken relationships, depression, and may even lead to suicide.

To combat the risks from physician burnout, researchers warn that healthcare organizations must focus on improving working conditions for doctors and avoiding the problems. Considering burnout leads to negative effects for both the doctor and the patient, steps should be taken to help improve the problem, the researchers said.

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