examining the dangers posed by physician burnout

At some point, most people have experienced a degree of frustration with their working lives. While for many people this frustration may result in them devoting time to assessing their professional satisfaction and determining whether it’s time for a change, for others it may never evolve beyond a feeling of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and declining job performance.

Experts have a well-known phrase for this latter phenomenon — burnout. Interestingly enough, many studies have shown that physicians are one of the professions with the highest rates of burnout.

“[Burnout is] a massive problem,” said one medical expert. “I don’t know of any other industry where burnout is so high. Here, we have physicians who are helping patients navigate their stress-related concerns and, in general, they tend to be more stressed out than their patients.”

As mentioned above, burnout is often characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and declining job performance. While this can prove problematic for someone in an office setting, imagine how disastrous it can prove for physicians tasked with caring for someone’s wellbeing and, by extension, how much it can elevate their chances of being sued for medical malpractice.

“If you are depersonalized toward others and you’re not treating them as other human beings in the physician-patient relationship, it seems reasonable that that’s to be associated with poor communication skills and that could then lead to increased litigation risk,” said one expert.

Indeed, multiple studies have linked physician burnout to a higher incidence of medical malpractice claims:

  • A 2010 survey of 7,905 surgeons published in the Annals of Surgery determined that for every one-point increase in the physicians’ depersonalization, there was a corresponding 11 percent increase in error reporting, and that for every one-point increase in emotional exhaustion, there was a corresponding 5 percent increase in error reporting. 
  • A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Medicine determined that among a sample of 353 physicians, those MDs who were given patient performance ratings that put them in the middle tier were 26 percent more likely to be sued by patients than MDs in the top tier, while those MDs whose patient performance ratings put them in the bottom tier were 110 percent more likely to be sued by patients.

The good news, however, is that there is an increasing awareness in the medical community about the problem of physician burnout and a concerted effort to rectify it. For instance, programs have been developed that focus exclusively on introducing mindfulness as an antidote to physician burnout.

One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that among 74 physicians at the prestigious Mayo Clinic who participated in a stress intervention/mindfulness program, 15.5 percent reported a decrease in otherwise high rates of depersonalization, while six percent reported that their perceptions about the meaningfulness of their work changed for the better.

While this is indeed encouraging news, it’s nevertheless important for those who have been victimized by medical negligence — regardless of whether their physician was burned out — to consider talking to a dedicated legal professional to learn more about how they can seek justice.

Source: Family Practice News, “Shifting stress perceptions can reduce burnout, lawsuits,” Alicia Gallegos, May 28, 2014

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