Nurses with depression, stress may be more likely to commit medical errors, study finds

Nurses who suffer from depression have a greater chance of committing a medical error, according to a new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Researchers led by a team from Ohio State University (OSU) surveyed nearly 1,800 nurses in clinical practice and found that 54% reported poor mental and physical health, and a third said they were dealing with some degree of anxiety, stress or depression.  

The study found that nurses with poorer mental or physical health are between 26% and 71% more likely to commit medical errors compared to nurses in better health. About half of the nurses in the study said they had committed a medical error in the past five years. 

Fewer than half of the nurses surveyed said their professional quality of life was positive. 

"When you're not in optimal health, you're not going to be on top of your game," Bernadette Melnyk, R.N., dean of OSU's College of Nursing and chief wellness officer for the university, said in an announcement

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Melnyk said the survey is the first research to connect nurses' self-reported errors to their mental and physical wellness. Though there are limitations to the usefulness of self-reported data, she said that studies like this should push healthcare leaders to create programs that support clinicians and improve their well-being. 

"Healthcare systems and hospitals have to do a better job of creating wellness cultures for their clinicians," she said. 

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Prior research suggests that nurses suffer from depression at twice the rate of the general population, but despite their clinical expertise they may not recognize the signs of their stress as clinical depression. 

Some providers have tried resilience training, which can help nurses and other clinicians ease their own stress and support one another. Page West, R.N., chief nursing officer at Dignity Health, said that the system has used this approach to great effect as "resilience is the antidote to burnout." 

Executives and team leaders sometimes get so absorbed in the day-to-day of patient care that they forget the needs of their team members, she said.