Overburdened Nurses Face Burnout, Raise the Likelihood of Medical Errors

Overburdened Nurses Face Burnout, Raise the Likelihood of Medical Errors

Burnout among medical professionals is a growing concern, given its link to medical errors. Medical error is a leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in as many as 440,000 fatalities every year. Yet much of the blame for this statistic may be due to a broken healthcare system. Recent surveys have shown that nurses have inadequate time to care for their patients, which leads to burnout, lower quality treatment, and a higher rate of medical error.

Defining Burnout, Its Symptoms and Consequences

Burnout results from an individual feeling stressed over a long period of time, leaving them disengaged, and sapped emotionally and physically. Research suggests there is a connection between nurse burnout, and the rates at which patients get infections.

A study of nurses across Massachusetts found that 90 percent reported they were unable to give their patients the quality of care they needed. Additionally, 77 percent said they had so many patients under their care, it posed a hazard to safety. The same percentage of nurses said they had given a patient the wrong amount or type of medication as a result of being overworked.

Just as alarmingly, 72 percent of nurses thought patients were often admitted to the hospital again after their initial stay, due to inadequate treatment. Moreover, 64 percent of those surveyed also said that understaffing led to patients being harmed. The nurses pointed to flaws in the care system, with 63 percent reporting that hospitals maintained the same assignment structure, regardless of the needs of current patients. Overworked and unheard by administration, there is little wonder why many nurses are burned out.

Prescription for Burnout

Nurses also become burned out due to working 12-hour-long shifts, and doing overtime when a hospital is short-staffed. Some may not be able to leave right after an already-grueling day, if extra help is needed or they have not finished their duties. Exhaustion from this taxing schedule greatly increases the likelihood of medical mistakes.

Nurses are also susceptible to burnout since they are often caring for patients as well as families, and do not take time for self-care and stress relief. Further, changes in the healthcare field have given nurses even more daily tasks and recording-keeping duties, so there is never enough time to get everything done. Nurses also bear the emotional weight of working with people who may be in great pain, or near death. They may lose patients who they care for as friends, yet have no time to pause and mourn.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Nurses and doctors have expressed frustration at the influx of technology in the workplace that disrupts patient care and can lead to burnout. In a survey of 150 nurses, doctors, and IT personnel, 88 percent reported that it is hard to provide quality care due to these interruptions. Such notifications may be anything from a text about lab results, to an alert sent by IV pump, to question from a colleague.

According to the report, 35 percent of respondents said they had 6-10 distractions every hour, and 37 percent said they had 2-5 every hour. While some alerts need immediate attention, there is no division between messages for life-and-death situations and routine blood tests. About 66 percent of those surveyed said hospitals needed to review policies about sending texts and alerts, but few institutions have taken this action. Meanwhile, nurses spend a third of their shifts working with technology and not patients, and the burnout epidemic continues.

Self-Care Solutions

To prevent the loss of dedicated health care workers, hospitals must implement policies that allow nurses to engage in self-care. If treatment professionals are allowed to focus on their own needs, they can better care for others, and be more engaged at work and home.

Nurses must be encouraged to find outlets for stress relief, such as exercise or discussing work with a confidant. Regardless of the methods they choose, it is key for nurses to have an emotional release to they can prevent burnout. Nurses must also be alert to their emotions and those of their colleagues, and note symptoms of exhaustion and disconnectedness. A crucial part to solving this problem is knowing how to spot it, and where to get help.

Healing the System

In the survey of Massachusetts nurses, 90 percent reported that they were in favor of a proposed statewide initiative that would limit the number of patients assigned to a nurse based on the level of care they require. In voting for this measure, and calling for similar regulations in other states, the public can play a role in helping nurses avoid burnout and ensuring all Americans receive the quality care they deserve.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: May 20, 2019