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Burnout among doctors could hurt patients too

January 04, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • Stress and burnout are the subject of two studies published in Anesthesiology.
Stress and burnout are the subject of two studies published in Anesthesiology. (Scott McCloskey / Associated…)

You might have heard already that surgeons who miss out on sleep make more mistakes in the operating room. Now the editors of Anesthesiology want you to know about another potential patient-safety pitfall: physician burnout.

The journal published two studies on medical-staff burnout on Tuesday. 

In the first, a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine team administered an online survey to all the members of one perioperative unit -- that is, the doctors, nurses and other staff to tend to surgical patients before and after their operations. They found that physicians, and particularly residents (who usually carry larger workloads), were at higher risk of burnout than nurses and other personnel.

Another group, at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, focused on burnout among senior physicians -- chairs of academic anesthesiology departments.  They found that about half of the anesthesiologists they surveyed -- 55 doctors in all -- met their criteria for "high burnout" or "moderately-high burnout."

While it is unclear whether physician burnout has a direct adverse effect on patient care -- do dissatisfied docs make more mistakes? -- it's almost certain that it makes doctors' lives unhappy, hurting patients in turn.  Dr. Tait Shanafelt, a Mayo Clinic hematologist, wrote an editorial accompanying the studies, which reported that:

"Studies have found that burnout and dissatisfaction influence patient compliance, patient satisfaction with their medical care, and quality of care. ... On a personal level, burnout has been shown to relate to suicidal ideation among both physicians and medical students and may contribute to other personal problems such as substance abuse and broken relationships. Burnout is also associated with malpractice suits and turnover which can create substantial cost to hospitals and practice groups."

The issue of Anesthesiology appears less than a week after a group of prominent researchers, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, called on hospitals to stop allowing surgeons to perform elective procedures after their nights-on-call -- or, at the very least, be required to tell patients when they've missed out on a good night's sleep.  Research has shown that sleep-deprived doctors, just like sleep-deprived drivers, are more likely to make mistakes.  

Related from the Los Angeles Times: Sleep-deprived doctors should not perform elective surgery, physicians say

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