Published in:
Issue/Volume: August 13, 2007
Written by: Damon Adams


Doctors experience anxiety and lose their confidence when they are involved with a medical error, a new study found. But only 10% of surveyed doctors said their health care organization helps them cope with error-related stress.

Researchers surveyed 3,171 U.S. and Canadian physicians in 2003 and 2004 to examine the impact medical mistakes had on them. Ninety-two percent said they were involved in a minor or serious error, or a near miss, according to the study in the August issue of The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

“It’s not just a very small number of doctors who are impacted. Many are reporting this is a significant source of stress for them,” said study lead author Amy D. Waterman, PhD, a psychologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The more severe the error, the more likely a physician was distressed. Many doctors experienced increased anxiety about making more errors, loss of confidence and job satisfaction, and sleep problems. Doctors who spent more than 75% of their time in clinical practice and female physicians were more likely to be stressed after a serious error. One in three doctors who had a near miss also experienced increased stress.

While most doctors said their organization did not help them cope with stress from errors, 82% were interested in getting counseling. Some doctors said finding time for counseling would be difficult. Others feared that getting counseling would impact their medical liability rates.

The study said hospitals and other organizations should broaden formal and informal sources of support to physicians during and after work. Institutions can send a message that seeking support is OK by offering stress debriefings, counseling with therapists or doctors who have experienced errors, and discussions of how physician leaders coped after their mistakes.

“Doctors may leave the profession if we don’t support them better,” Dr. Waterman said. “We have to provide easily available resources that are confidential.”