Stanford University Researchers Finds Physician Burnout as Big a Threat to Patient Safety as Unsafe Hospital Conditions; Exhausted Providers Twice as Likely to Make Medical Errors

Pathologists might be able to help overburdened doctors by adding medical laboratory support services that assist providers in selecting the right tests and identifying the best therapeutic options for patients

In a new Stanford University School of Medicine study published in the July 9, 2018, issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers indicate that physician burnout may be as big a cause of medical errors as unsafe healthcare environments. This highlights an opportunity for clinical laboratory professionals and pathologists to help physicians improve both diagnostic accuracy and the selection of the most appropriate therapies.

The study found that exhausted providers were twice as likely to report making a medical error. However, it’s a complex problem with no easy solutions.

“Just trying to fix the setting of healthcare environments in order to prevent errors is not sufficient,” Stanford University’s Daniel Tawfik, MD, MS, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health. “We also need to address the actual underlying human factors that contribute to errors—specifically looking at physician burnout.”

Nevertheless, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution to physician burnout, clinical laboratory managers and pathologists potentially could help overburdened providers reduce burnout and fatigue by adopting new lab testing support services designed to assist physicians in selecting the right tests and identifying the best therapeutic options for their patients.

Medical Errors Third-Leading Cause of Death in America

Stanford researchers wanted to learn how physician burnout contributes to medical errors which, according to Johns Hopkins, is the third-leading cause of death in the US. They surveyed 6,695 physicians from across America. Of the respondents:

  • More than 54% reported symptoms of burnout­;
  • 33% experienced excessive fatigue;
  • Nearly 7% had thoughts of suicide; and,
  • Roughly 4% reported a failing safety grade in their primary work area.

Even in medical units judged to have excellent safety records, the study found rates of medical errors nearly tripled when physicians working in those units had high levels of burnout. The prevalence of errors became similar to a non-burned-out physician working in a unit with a safety grade of “acceptable” or “poor.”

“We found that physicians with burnout had more than twice the odds of self-reported medical error, after adjusting for specialty, work hours, fatigue, and work unit safety rating,” Tawfik noted in a Stanford news release. “We also found that low safety grades in work units were associated with three to four times the odds of medical errors.”

According to the study, overall, 10.5% of physicians surveyed acknowledged in the prior three months making:

  • An error in judgment;
  • A wrong diagnosis;
  • A technical mistake during a procedure;
  • Prescribing a wrong drug/dosage; and/or,
  • Ordering medication/intervention for the wrong patient.

While more than half of mistakes (55.4%) did not affect patient outcomes, or only caused a temporary problem (22.6%), more than 5% of errors did lead to major permanent health problems and 4.5% resulted in a patient death, the study found.

Radiologists, neurosurgeons, and emergency medicine specialists had the highest prevalence of error rates, with more than 21% of providers in each of those fields acknowledging recent mistakes.

Physicians reporting errors were more likely to have symptoms of overall burnout (77.6% versus 51.5%), as well as fatigue (46.6% versus 31.2%), than error-free providers. Physicians reporting recent errors also had a higher prevalence of suicidal thoughts (12.7% versus 5.8%), the study found.

Ted Hole, MD, a family practice physician in Ventura, Calif., is not surprised by the correlation between medical mistakes and overall well-being. “If your brain isn’t working right, you’re going to make errors,” Hole told the Ventura County Star. “That’s what burnout does. It makes your brain not work right.”

Stanford Connects Physician Burnout and Poor Workspace Safety Ratings

In their paper, the Stanford researchers argue a “combination of physician-targeted burnout interventions and unit-targeted patient improvement measures” are needed to tackle the problem of medical errors. Physicians who gave their work units an excellent, very good, or acceptable safety grade were less likely to make a medical error than those who described workplace safety as poor or failing.

Of the physicians who reported a poor or failing work unit safety grade, nearly 25% reported a recent error. Errors were incrementally lower for work units with higher safety grades regardless of physician burnout levels.

“This indicates both the burnout level as well as work unit safety characteristics are independently related to the risk of errors,” Tait Shanafelt, MD, Director of the Stanford WellMD Center and Associate Dean of the School of Medicine, noted in a Stanford statement.

“Today, most organizations invest substantial resources and have a system-level approach to improve safety on every work unit,” he said in the Stanford news release. “We need a holistic and systems-based approach to address the epidemic of burnout among healthcare providers if we are truly going to create the high-quality healthcare system we aspire to.”


Tait Shanafelt, MD (above), is Director of the Stanford WellMD Center, Associate Dean of the School of Medicine, and an author of the Stanford study. He maintains the “epidemic of burnout” among healthcare providers should receive as much attention as safety issues. Shanafelt became Stanford Medicine’s first Chief Wellness Officer in 2017. (Photo copyright: Stanford School of Medicine.)

Burnout Among Physicians Increasing

Other studies, including Medscape’sLifestyle Report 2017: Race and Ethnicity, Bias and Burnout,” confirm an upward trend in burnout rates among US physicians. In the Medscape study, 51% of physicians surveyed reporting being “burned out,” defined as a loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. Since the Medscape Lifestyle Report first queried physicians about burnout in 2013, the number of providers reporting burnout has increased 25%.

Physician burnout has been attributed to a variety of factors, including:

  • Excessive workloads;
  • Financial stress;
  • Extra hours spent on clerical work or EHR-related tasks; and,
  • Loss of human-to-human interaction between physician and patient.

Robert Lum, MD, an Oxnard, Calif.-based radiation oncologist, blames the shift to corporate-owned medical practices for some of the reported increases in burnout among physicians. Lum told the Ventura County Star he stays upbeat by never losing sight of why he became a physician.

“If you focus on the reason you went into medicine in the first place, which is to help people and marvel at the miracles modern medicine is able to do, then you’ll have less burnout,” he said.

Nevertheless, other solutions also can help. Clinical laboratories play a key role in maximizing physician/patient encounters. By extension, physicians and laboratories are linked in unique ways that enable labs to reduce physician burden and ensure positive healthcare outcomes.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Physician Burnout, Well-being, and Work Unit Safety Grades in Relationship to Reported Medical Errors

Study Suggests Medical Errors Now the Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

Medical Errors May Stem more from Physician Burnout than Unsafe Health Care Settings

Study Says Rising Doctor Burnout Means Rising Medical Errors

In a First for U.S. Academic Medical Center, Stanford Medicine Hires Chief Physician Wellness Officer

Medscape Lifestyle Report 2017: Race and Ethnicity, Bias and Burnout

Physician Burnout a Key Driver of Medical Errors