- Though medical errors are commonly associated with physician burnout and poor well-being, they are also correlated with low work unit safety grades. Efforts to reduce them require a multifaceted approach that address both, a new study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings concludes.
- The researchers surveyed 6,695 active practice physicians across the U.S. and medical specialties regarding burnout, fatigue, suicidal ideation, work unit safety grade and recent medical errors. Of those practitioners, more than one in 10 reported a perceived major medical error in the past three months.
- Doctors reporting a major medical error were more likely to report burnout (78% vs. 52%), fatigue (47% vs. 31%) and recent suicidal ideation (13% vs. 52%). Physicians most likely to report perceived errors were those experiencing burnout, fatigue or lower work unit safety grades.
Physician burnout is a well-known and expensive problem in healthcare, costing U.S. hospitals and health systems upward of $1.7 billion annually. When burnout-related turnover is factored in, the costs are as high as $17 billion a year.
And the problem isn’t getting better. In a recent Medscape survey of 15,000 practicing physicians, nearly two-thirds reported feeling burnout out, depressed or both. Among factors fueling burnout are long hours, burdensome regulatory requirements and increasing administrative tasks.
This study shows the real toll burnout can take: impacting patient safety. But it also points to the role of work unit safety and how physicians perceive it.
While about 80% of physicians rated their primary work area “excellent” or “very good grade,” about 4% gave it a “poor” or “failing” safety grade, the researchers note.
“Prior research has associated burnout with perceptions of poor safety climate, but the current study found independent associations between poor work unit safety grade and medical errors as well as between burnout and medical errors, arguing against collinearity as the sole explanation for our findings,” the authors write. “This phenomenon highlights that both a system-based approach to improve work unit safety and a system approach to reduce burnout and improve well-being of health care workers are necessary to reduce errors and optimize safety/quality of care.”
To reduce physician burnout, some healthcare organizations are appointing C-suite executives to oversee employee wellness and provide a more supportive work environment.
“We need to make sure that our physicians are as healthy as they can be, because they are then going to be able to be there for their patients and support them,” Edward Ellison, executive medical director and chairman of Southern California Permanente Medical Group, told Healthcare Dive earlier this year.
The group hired a chief wellness officer six years ago after physicians ranked the organization “very low” on wellness support in an internal survey. The same survey today shows double-digit improvements on culture and wellness, Ellison said.