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Does Burnout Really Lead to Worse Patient Care?

It’s presumed that burnout drastically harms the quality of patient care, but previous research into the subject might be lacking…

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

Why Does This Research Matter?

While many studies have examined 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. Nevertheless, 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?

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 patient events or recognition of poor-quality care may result in emotional, or other psychological distress among providers.” 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 healthcare burnout might finally be effected.

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