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Fatigue and Distress Linked to Young Physician Errors

Another study has confirmed that the hours new physicians work during residency training contribute to medical errors.

Mayo Clinic researchers also discovered distress, that is, burnout, depression, financial issues, family concerns or other emotional stress is also a factor toward self-perceived medical errors.

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“We looked at distress and fatigue together and found that both factors can lead to a significant risk of medical error,” says Colin West, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic physician and lead author of the study.

“Both fatigue and distress among medical residents represent a potential concern for patient safety.”

The discover that burnout could occur before a career actually begins is a strong indicator that change is necessary.

Previous studies, including a 2006 JAMA article by the same authors, showed that burnout during the physician training process can lead to medical errors. Other studies have suggested resident fatigue also increases the risk of medical errors.

Collectively, these studies informed the 2008 Institute of Medicine recommendations that resident work hours be controlled.

This new study confirms the previous findings but shows that distress should be addressed as a factor independent of fatigue.

Mayo Clinic Internal Medicine residents were surveyed every three months between July 2003 and February 2009.

Standardized survey tools were used to measure burnout, symptoms of depression, sleepiness and fatigue. At quarterly intervals, residents were also asked if they had made a major medical error in the last three months. Of the 430 eligible residents, 88 percent answered at least one survey.

Overall, 39 percent of the respondents reported at least one self-perceived major medical error during the study period.

“While changes have been made to reduce fatigue and sleepiness during residency training, other changes may be necessary to more specifically address distress and burnout,” says Tait Shanafelt, M.D., Mayo physician and senior author.

The researchers say their findings may have implications beyond residency training and suggest that more attention to reducing non-fatigue-related distress among physicians may reduce errors and improve patient safety.

The authors note that the findings are somewhat limited by study size, by the fact the study was conducted at only one institution, and because the survey tool used for symptoms of depression may not allow definitive diagnosis of that condition.

They recommend further research be conducted in larger, multi-institution populations to better identify the factors leading to medical errors.

Source: Mayo Clinic

Fatigue and Distress Linked to Young Physician Errors

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Fatigue and Distress Linked to Young Physician Errors. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 23, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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