Doctor Fatigue and Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice is a serious issue here in the United States: errors may account for as many as 251,000 deaths annually. Many of these mistakes are due to human error. We’ve all heard stories of a surgery being performed on a wrong limb or an incorrect medication being prescribed. In many instances, fatigue may have played a role. Let’s explore a bit more about the connection between medical malpractice and doctor fatigue.

What Factors Lead to Physician Fatigue or Burnout?

There are many factors that can lead to a physician or nurse feeling fatigued. The 2021 Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report compiled the responses of 12,000 physicians across 29 specialties.

Some of the answers to “what contributes the most to your burnout?” included:

  • Too many bureaucratic tasks (58%)
  • Spending too many hours at work (37%)
  • Lack of respect from colleagues or staff (37%)
  • Insufficient compensation (32%)
  • Lack of control/autonomy (28%)
  • Increasing computerization of practice (28%)

One of the physicians who completed the survey explained that all the answers applied and that it was “death by 1,000 cuts.”

Fatigue and Medical Errors

Patients have good reason to care about their doctor’s mental state. In 2014, a Mayo Clinic study discovered that physician fatigue and burnout was strongly associated with an increase in medical errors. In other words, physicians reporting burnout and fatigue were substantially more likely to have made a mistake in a patient’s care.

It’s not just doctors feeling the strain, either. Nurses routinely work extended or graveyard shifts which can contribute to their tiredness. One study published in the American Journal of Infection Control showed that when burnout among nurses improved at hospitals, urinary and surgical site infection was reduced by 30%.

To sum it up, we can improve patient safety by encouraging measures to reduce physician and staff fatigue.

How You Can Reduce Your Chances of a Medical Error

As always, take the time to research a new provider. Look for what other patients have had to say, learn how long they’ve been in practice, and call the office and ask any questions you have. Besides this, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your chances of becoming a malpractice victim:

  • Build good relationships with staff. Get to know the first names of the doctor, nurse, and support staff.
  • Ask questions and leave with notes. Our memories are often not as reliable as we imagine. Therefore, take notes, clarify medical instructions, and leave with an after-visit summary you can refer to later. In addition, call back if you have questions once you’re home.
  • Bring a family member to key visits. If you’re dealing with an important medical issue (for example, a consultation about an upcoming operation), bring a family member or friend. It’s good to have a second set of ears.
  • Schedule surgeries and important appointments towards the start of the day and week. Think how you feel at the start of a workday versus the end. Studies show that errors are more likely to occur towards the end of a doctor’s shift. So, schedule your key appointments for times your doctor is likely to be rested.

For more on this topic, be sure to read our blog post How You Can Prevent Medical Errors.

Have You Been a Victim of Medical Malpractice?

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