Burnout is a problem in any demanding job and can cause even the most well-trained professional to make mistakes or overlook an important detail. In the medical profession burnout can mean more medication errors, a possible missed diagnosis, or other mistakes that can lead to serious patient injuries.
Unfortunately, burnout is so prevelant in the medical profession that doctors have a higher risk for substance abuse, lying, cheating, and in some cases are at an increased risk for suicide. Over time burnout can lead to a loss of empathy for their co-workers and patients and is linked to increased errors on the job.
Burnout can be caused by various factors, but underlying job pressures and being overworked can be leading causes. Studies have looked at different ways to prevent or mitigate doctor burnout, including some promising research on mindfulness as a potential fix. Mindfulness is a skill that can be taught and it means an increased ability to pay attention and focus on what is happening in the moment without letting one's mind wander to other non-immediate concerns. In application this would mean teaching doctors to focus on the patient in the room and to shut out questions and issues about a previous or upcoming patient.
Doctors and other medical professionals who were found to be more mindful were also found to be more upbeat when they interacted with patients and more focused on the patient's specific needs and symptoms, leading to a more in-depth analysis of the medical problem. These patients reported higher levels of satisfaction with their care and the mindful doctors remained just as efficient as their peers.
There are still some important questions to answer about how to train mindfulness and whether doctors have the time and energy to dedicate to the training, but the results of the study could be used to make a big difference in patient care in the future in reducing incidents of medical malpractice.
Source: New York Times, "Easing Doctor Burnout With Mindfulness," Pauline W. Chen, Sept. 26, 2013.