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Does Burnout Really Lead to Worse Patient Care?

Burnout is an epidemic among healthcare providers. One aspect of the condition that raises the stakes for administrators, besides clinicians’ mental health, is its presumed negative impact on patient care.

But is this relationship exaggerated? A new systematic review, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked for an answer.

What did the study find? 

Two reviewers independently examined 142 studies associated with burnout and quality of care, to determine whether biases came into play in the overall results. The studies, published from 1994 to 2019, included 241,553 healthcare providers — from physicians to nurses, and other medical staff. The reviewers analyzed five metrics for quality of care: best practices, communication, medical errors, patient outcomes, and quality and safety. They also assessed burnout using five metrics: overall burnout, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low personal accomplishment.

RELATED: How Severe is Your Burnout? This One-Question Test May Provide an Answer

The results, to put it mildly, were mixed. Among 114 cases, 58 revealed a link between burnout and poor-quality care, 50 found no significant effect, and six actually indicated a link between burnout and higher quality care. 

Why does this research matter?

While there have been many studies examining the link between burnout and patient care, “true effect size may be smaller than reported,” wrote the study authors. In addition, they emphasized that the existing studies are purely observational, and therefore limited. 

RELATED: Clinician Burnout Costs the Healthcare Industry Billions of Dollars Annually

By exposing the studies’ flaws, this meta-analysis paves the way for more intensive studies, which could help hospitals improve their quality of care by zeroing in on areas of concern. 

What does this mean for healthcare professionals?

It goes without saying that burnout is a real risk in the healthcare profession—to the detriment not only of professionals themselves but also the patients they care for.

“Providers who have burnout may have less time or commitment to optimize the care of their patients, may take more unnecessary risks, or may be unable to pay attention to necessary details or recognize the consequences of their actions,” the authors explained. “Conversely, exposure to adverse patients events or recognition of poor-quality care may result in emotional or other psychological distress among providers.”

RELATED: 8 Changes to Make at Work to Prevent Burnout as a Healthcare Provider

While the result of this meta-analysis may sound like the old “further studies must be done” story, in this case it’s positive news: By exposing previous studies’ flaws, true change in the area of healthcare burnout might finally be effected.

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