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How Clinician Burnout Can Affect Patient Safety

Healthcare burnout

by Sarah Stasik

Are you burning the candle at both ends at the expense of your patients? Healthcare worker burnout is a common challenge; around 40 percent of Mayo Clinic physicians reported dealing with one or more symptoms of burnout. Burnout can hit anyone, making it important to understand how to recognize it and how to keep it from negatively impacting patient care.

Find out more about how to recognize healthcare worker burnout and protect your patients below, and then check out the allied career options at Med Travelers.


Healthcare worker burnout: symptoms and patient impact

Alice Holland, a physical therapist at Stride Strong Physical Therapy recounts a time many years ago when she dealt with burnout. "I was seeing 16 plus patients a day, and I was feeling very dizzy and my attention was definitely not at its best when I got to my last two patients," says Holland.

Since that time, Holland has moved on to work in a clinic with a better schedule, she says. She advises healthcare workers who feel overwhelmed to talk to their employers or seek out work solutions that allow more flexibility in scheduling because that lack of attention and dizziness isn't healthy for the physical therapist or the patient.

4 signs you're dealing with healthcare worker burnout

Before you can make a change to alleviate burnout, you have to know that you're in such a situation — and realize how negative it could be for the safety of your patients. Here are four signs that might indicate you're dealing with healthcare worker burnout.

  • 1. Licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino of Psych Point notes that burnout leads clinicians to check out. "A clinician's ability to be present and attentive toward a patient will decline," she says. If you find yourself unable to concentrate on patients or what they are saying, you could be dealing with healthcare worker burnout.
  • 2. Guarino also says feeling anxious about seeing your patients can be another sign of burnout. It's normal to feel nervous about an especially hard case or even feel dread about dealing with a particularly difficult patient, but if you have anxiety or constantly lose patience with your clients, burnout could be at play.
  • 3. Changes in mood without another relevant cause can indicate burnout. If you're suddenly angry or depressed, especially with regard to your job, you might need a break or a change in pace or setting.
  • 4. Burnout causes you to lose interest or passion in your job, which can lead to lower quality performance and no drive to grow in the future. If you find yourself suddenly content to be a "passable" therapist, aren't interested in learning about new solutions or therapies or can't imaging doing your job in the years go come, you're probably burned out.

If you're experiencing any symptoms that lead you to believe you're dealing with healthcare worker burnout, take action as soon as possible. If you can, take a vacation to reset yourself and consider your goals and career. Talk to supervisors about your schedule or consider looking for work in your field but in a different setting.

3 ways your burnout can be detrimental for patients

There's a tendency among clinicians to fight through exhaustion and other issues for the sake of patients, but battling through burnout to provide patient care could put your clients risk. Here's a look at just three ways healthcare worker burnout can be detrimental for patients.

  • 1. Guarino notes that burnout that makes it hard for you to concentrate on patients means you are likely missing information that is "vital for the patient's well-being." Losing focus for just a few minutes could put the patient at risk for a fall, for example, and lack of concentration could result in poor documentation that leaves your patient at risk during future sessions.
  • 2. Julia Kuhm, MS CCC-SLP blogs at The Traveling Traveler. She notes that clinician burnout can cause therapists to be lackadaisical about patient outcomes, which means they aren't pushing clients toward appropriate goals. The result can be patients who don't heal as quickly or never gain the range of motion they might have otherwise. In short, burnout can lead to long-term consequences for patients.
  • 3. Nicole B. Washington, D.O. notes that the damage to patients isn't always physical. "Increases in irritability can interfere with rapport with patients and a good clinician-patient relationship can make a huge difference with outcomes as well," she says. Burnout can make healthcare workers short-tempered or snippy, and they may inadvertently take some of their frustrations out on patients. A poor relationship with your patient doesn't just impact the outcome of your particular therapy, either — it could skew the patient's perspective of healthcare for the future, causing them not to seek assistance when they might need it.

You might think you're immune to burnout because you just started your job or love working with patients, but Meredith Castin, PT, notes that anyone can experience burnout. "I have seen people burn out as early as a year out of school as they realize they have insurmountable student debt, but traditional clinical care comes with a pretty firm income ceiling."

Castin says some healthcare workers take on too many patients or extra jobs for financial reasons, and some simply have an overabundance of work laid upon them. No matter why you're dealing with healthcare worker burnout, if you're experiencing any of the symptoms described above, take action to avoid putting your patients at risk.


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