One of the leading causes of death in the United States is health care.
That sounds absurd. But it’s true. Medical errors lead to some 200,000 American deaths a year.
If medical mistakes were a disease, they would be more deadly than Alzheimer’s and diabetes combined.1
That would make medical errors the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer.2
A frightening new study shows why medical mistakes are so common. Doctors are suffering an epidemic of burnout.
Researchers at Stanford University of Medicine surveyed more than 6,600 physicians. They were asked to rate their levels of burnout, fatigue, and depression.
More than half of doctors said they had symptoms of burnout. A third said they had high levels of fatigue.
And many said there were severely depressed. It’s so bad that 6.5% said they considered suicide in the last year. Doctors have a suicide rate that is three to five times higher than the general public.
The study found that doctors who report they are burned out are twice as likely to make medical errors.
More than 10% of doctors surveyed reported making a “major” medical error in the three months prior to the survey. One in 20 of these errors was fatal to the patient.
The most errors were made by neurosurgeons, radiologists, and emergency room doctors. The least were made by pediatricians, psychiatrists, and anesthesiologists.3
Dr. Tait Shanafelt is an associate dean of the School of Medicine at Stanford. He was the senior author of the study.
The medical profession desperately needs “to address the epidemic of burnout among health care providers,” Dr. Shanafelt said.4
“If we are trying to maximize the safety and quality of medical care, we must address the factors in the work environment that lead to burnout among our health care providers,” he said.
Dr. Daniel Tawfik is an instructor in pediatric critical care medicine at Stanford. He led the study.
“Up until just recently, the prevailing thought was that if medical errors are occurring, you need things like checklists and better teamwork,” Dr. Tawfik said. “This study shows that is probably insufficient.”
The study recently was published online in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
How to Tell if Your Doctor Is Burned Out
What is the medical profession doing to protect you from burned out doctors?
And that’s why you need to protect yourself. Don’t put your health—and possibly your life—in the hands of a physician who’s too burned out to provide you with good medical care.
Ask these five questions to determine if your doctor is suffering burnout:
Does your doctor work in a large practice? Only 13% of doctors in small, independent primary care practices report burnout. The national average is more than 50%, according to a study by the New York University School of Medicine. The independence and autonomy doctors enjoy in smaller practices may decrease burnout.5
Does your doctor pay attention? During appointments, does your doctor show active interest in your case? Does he patiently listen to you? Does he answer all of your questions?
Does he dismiss your complaints due to age or stress? A doctor should never blame ills on “old age” or “just stress” without giving you a real diagnosis. This is a sign he is stumped and doesn’t have the time or energy to fully investigate your problem.
Is he overbooked? Do you sit in the waiting room for long periods of time? Does he rush you through appointments? Doctors who stretch themselves too thin are more likely to suffer burnout.
Are you getting better? If your health problem is not improving, don’t wait to take action. Your doctor should always tell you how long it will take before a treatment starts to work. If the deadline passes without improvement, and you’re told to just give the treatment more time, it’s a sign the doctor doesn’t have the energy to try something else.
And one more thing…
Ask your doctor how many patients he or she has. Less than 2,000 is best. Anything over 2,300 is a red flag that your doctor may be stretched too thin.