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How Fatigue and Burnout Increases the Risk of Medical Malpractice

November 3, 2021

Doctor fatigue is a work-related syndrome. Research by the Stanford University School of Medicine showed that more than half of all American physicians suffer from doctor fatigue. Because of this, they are more than twice as likely to commit a serious medical mistake. The study found that almost 6,700 hospital and clinic physicians who were interviewed about workplace burnout, over 10% said that they’d committed at least one significant medical error in the three months before the survey.

And the coronavirus pandemic has made this phenomenon even worse, as long hours on the front lines under increasing duress and overcrowded hospitals have created an even greater risk of medical malpractice. Research shows increasing rates of depression, trauma, and burnout among a group of professionals already known for high rates of suicide because of the demands from COVID-19.

While the numbers are staggering, researchers were not particularly surprised by the results. In fact, the Stanford study’s findings were similar to other research conducted in the past few years. Several prior studies have linked medical errors to between 100,000 to 200,000 patient deaths every year. The recent results affirmed that these high rates of physician fatigue can be connected to the following:

  • A reduced quality of care;
  • Less patient satisfaction;
  • Decreased patient safety; and
  • Higher turnover rates.

“When a physician is experiencing burnout, a wide range of adverse events may occur,” remarked lead study author Dr. Daniel Tawfik, an instructor in pediatric critical care at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

“The key finding of this study is that both individual physician burnout and work-unit safety grades are strongly associated with medical errors,” he said.

What Is Physician Fatigue?

Fatigue is the inability or unwillingness to continue effective performance. It can be the result of excessive workload, stress, sleep loss, and circadian disruption. Physician or doctor fatigue can be described as a work-related syndrome that afflicts medical professionals characterized by any or all of these symptoms:

  • Depression;
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion;
  • Feelings of reduced effectiveness;
  • Depersonalization;
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm; and
  • Cynicism.

While workplace fatigue doesn’t only affect physicians, it’s frequently seen in occupations that involve high levels of stress and intense interactions with people. But doctor fatigue is especially dangerous because it can result in decreased effectiveness and an increase in errors in medical judgment, errors in diagnoses, and technical mistakes in medical procedures.

A 2018 study reported by CBS News discovered a connection between doctor fatigue and doctors who prescribed medications improperly, request few or too many lab tests, and—more significantly—caused patient deaths.

Doctor Fatigue Can Cause Medical Negligence

The research by the Stanford School of Medicine revealed that individual physician burnout and resulting medical error happen at an unprecedented rate. The study showed that more than 55% of doctors reported feeling burnt out, and about a third said they’d suffered from excessive fatigue.

What’s more, the study also showed that health care facilities where doctor burnout is common reported a medical error rate that was three times greater than the average rate.

Mistakes caused by doctor fatigue can lead to technical or judgmental errors, such as selecting a wrong or inappropriate technique, medication, or treatment that results in a serious and tragic adverse outcome.

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Doctor fatigue can mean an incorrect, missing, or delayed diagnosis, a surgical mistake, or prescription errors that can cause serious injury or even death.

For a free consultation with an experienced medical malpractice attorney in Michigan, contact Buchanan Firm. We can discuss your situation if you believe you’ve been injured as the result of doctor fatigue.

Our firm proudly serves people all across Michigan, including major cities like Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Detroit, Lansing, Holland, St. Joe, and Ann Arbor, and rural towns such as Lowell, Ada, Fremont, Newaygo, Grand Haven, Rockford, and Cedar Springs. We will meet you after-hours, at home or in the hospital to accommodate you.

Contact us today!