Doctor Fatigue Can Cause Medical Errors

Are you a victim of medical malpractice doctor fatigue?

The Mayo Clinic recently published a study by the Stanford University School of Medicine which revealed evidence of an alarming medical trend. The researchers found that more than half of all American physicians suffer from doctor fatigue. As a result, they are more than twice as likely to make life-altering medical mistakes. In fact, of the nearly 6,700 hospital and clinic physicians who were asked about workplace burnout, more than 10 percent reported that they had committed at least one significant medical error in the three months preceding the survey.

Although alarming, researchers were not overly surprised by the results. They were in line with other studies conducted in recent years and affirmed that recent high rates of physician fatigue can be linked to:

  • Reduced quality of care
  • Decreased patient safety
  • Lower patient satisfaction
  • Higher turnover rates.

Tragically, some fatigued doctors make medical errors that prove to be life-threatening and leave patients and their families to shoulder medical debt and deal with the many other consequences of a serious and painful injury. To learn more about doctor fatigue and how it could have affected your own diagnosis or treatment, contact Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard P.C. An experienced medical malpractice attorney from our firm can provide a timely and free review of your case and explain your legal rights and options.

What Is Doctor Fatigue?

Doctor fatigue is a work-related syndrome suffered by medical professionals that is characterized by some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Feelings of reduced effectiveness
  • Depression
  • Depersonalization
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Cynicism.

Workplace fatigue is not unique to doctors. However, it does tend to be especially common in occupations that involve high levels of stress as well as intense interactions with people. Doctor fatigue, however, is particularly dangerous, as it can lead to decreased effectiveness and an increase in:

  • Errors in medical judgment
  • Errors in diagnosing illnesses and conditions
  • Technical mistakes during procedures.

One study highlighted by CBS News found a link between doctor fatigue and doctors who:

  • Improperly prescribed drugs
  • Ordered too few or too many lab tests
  • Caused patient deaths.

The more recent study by the Stanford School of Medicine revealed that individual physician burnout and resulting medical error occur at an unprecedented rate. The researchers found that more than 55 percent of doctors reported feeling burnt out, while as many as one-third stated that they have suffered from excessive fatigue. Alarmingly, the study also revealed that health care facilities where doctor burnout is common reported a medical error rate that was three times higher than the average rate.

Is a Tired Doctor a Good Doctor?

We all know what it’s like to feel tired after a long day or after an especially hard workout. Doctors, like everyone else, experience these same feelings. This doesn’t mean that they are no longer good doctors. However, fatigue can rise to a level where it becomes dangerous.  According to the NCBI, a person can be considered to be fatigued if he or she is unable or unwilling to continue effective performance and which is usually the result of:

  • The deterioration of cognitive function
  • Impaired thought processes and learning
  • Memory defaults
  • Interpersonal dysfunction.

Although it has a number of different causes, fatigue is most often the result of an excessive workload, sleep loss, and stress. It is especially dangerous when a doctor suffers from fatigue. For instance, fatigued doctors are much more likely to:

  • Misdiagnose a patient
  • Prescribe the wrong medication
  • Make surgical errors
  • Make mistakes on medical charts
  • Fail to order appropriate tests.

These mistakes, in turn, can cause patients to suffer severe physical, mental, and financial harm.

Why Are Physicians Fatigued?

In 2003, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which governs medical training programs, introduced duty hour restrictions that:

  • Capped the average number of hours that a physician can work in a hospital at 80 per week
  • Limited single shifts to 30 hours.

In 2011, the ACGME issued further rules that reduced the maximum shift length for first year residents to 16 hours. More experienced residents were limited to 28 hours per shift. These reforms were designed to help physicians avoid fatigue. In reality, duty-hour restrictions didn’t actually reduce overall workloads. Instead, residents were now required to do the same amount of work in less time, which only exacerbated the initial problem.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that medical staffing hasn’t kept pace with the increasing burden on the country’s healthcare system. Unfortunately, this has led many residents to ignore the duty-hour rules. They are simply unable to handle a full caseload in the time allotted.

Another problem with ACGME’s hourly cap rules is that they only apply to time that is physically spent in the clinic or hospital. This means that many physicians, although technically complying with duty-hour rules, are actually taking significant amounts of their work home in order to fulfill their professional obligations; which can include taking notes, filing reports, conducting research, preparing for patient visits, and assisting remotely with issues specifically related to their patients. Technological advances, as described by an article in the Atlantic, which have made it easier than ever to work from home, have made this problem even more prevalent among those working in the medical field.

The steadily increasing incidences of medical error caused by doctor fatigue have caused many researchers to question how the medical field can avoid it. Many researchers believe that reevaluating and amending the rules regarding physician duty-hours is the best way to combat doctor fatigue, while others argue for a more comprehensive practice management system, which would streamline office duties and decrease stresses associated with daily tasks. Delegating administrative tasks to office workers and reducing patient loads may also help with the time pressures associated with keeping current electronic records.

Get Help from an Experienced Chicago Medical Malpractice Attorney

The attorneys of Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard P.C. have a long record of obtaining results for clients in cases involving serious injury caused by medical malpractice. We know how to investigate cases involving suspected doctor fatigue and how to pursue the answers and compensation that victims and their families deserve. To schedule a free and confidential consultation through our state-of-the-art offices in Chicago and Waukegan, call or reach us online today.