New mothers and their babies are being put at risk because medics are so exhausted, study warns

More than a third of maternity doctors admitted they suffer from burnout and exhaustion. This means that they may avoid difficult cases, over-prescribe medications and care less about their patients, increasing the risk of mistakes.

November 28 2019

According to new research published this week in the journal BMJ Open, 1 in 3 UK doctors working in obstetrics and gynaecology may suffer from workplace burnout.

Burnout is a condition triggered by long-term stress and overload at work, and is associated with emotional exhaustion, lack of empathy and connection with others, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment. The study found 36% of doctors met the criteria for burnout and were more likely to report anxiety, irritability and anger.

 “We found the results of this survey very worrying. The levels of burnout were high, particularly amongst younger doctors. This has serious implications for patients, as we know burnout reduces patient satisfaction, safety and standards of care. These results point to an environment in UK hospitals that makes staff unwell and less able to carry out their jobs safely.”

Professor Tom Bourne, lead author of the research from Imperial University, London

The study of over 3000 obstetricians and gynaecologists also showed that stressed doctors were more likely to show signs of ‘defensive’ practice. This means a doctor may avoid difficult cases or procedures, over prescribe medications, or carry out more investigations or treatments than necessary, for fear of missing a diagnosis or making a mistake.

“We know that some women who experience pregnancy complications, and baby loss, have unsatisfactory hospital experiences, often complaining of a lack of care or empathy alongside variable outcomes. This study highlights the pressure doctors within our maternity system are under and why we urgently need to transform and improve maternity care in the UK.”

Jane Brewin, Chief Executive, Tommy’s

Professor Tom Bourne, study author and consultant gynaecologist suggests that the solutions lie in improving the environment doctors work in. He highlights that such solutions relate to reducing workload, rebuilding supportive teams, compassionate leadership, improving the values and culture of hospitals, and giving doctors more autonomy and fairness.

“This important study provides compelling evidence that there is an urgent need to improve workplace environment for doctors. We know burnout is associated with worst outcomes for patients, as well as lack of empathy and rapport. It is vital the issue of burnout is addressed so we can sustainably deliver the very best care for our patients”

Dr. Alison Wright, vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists