Physician depression linked to medical errors, new study finds

Female nurse looking stressed
Healthcare organizations need to do more to address physician depression, as a new study finds it is associated with medical errors. (Getty/gpointstudio)

Physicians who have symptoms of depression are at a greater risk of making medical errors, according to a new study.

Researchers did a systematic review and meta-analysis of 11 studies involving more than 21,500 physicians and found doctors who screened positive for depression were highly likely to report medical errors, according to the study published in JAMA Network Open.

With depressive symptoms highly prevalent among physicians, the researchers said the findings highlight the connection between physician well-being and healthcare quality and underscore the need for efforts throughout the healthcare system to prevent or reduce depression among doctors.

Lead author Karina Pereira-Lima, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, and her coauthors said more studies are needed to determine if interventions to reduce depression in physicians could help reduce medical errors and improve patient safety.

The researchers said this was the first study to show the association between depression and perceived medical errors is “bidirectional.” In other words, not only is depression in physicians associated with future medical errors but medical errors are associated with future depressive symptoms in doctors.

“Given that few physicians with depression seek treatment and that recent evidence has pointed to the lack of organizational interventions aimed at reducing physician depressive symptoms our findings underscore the need for institutional policies to remove barriers to the delivery of evidence-based treatment to physicians with depression,” the study authors wrote.

In separate studies, many physicians have said they often feel that they can’t seek therapy for depression and mental health issues due to concerns they will endanger their medical license or hospital credentialing. An estimated 400 physicians commit suicide each year

This fall, the National Academy of Medicine issued a report that said the healthcare system must make the same kind of transformative changes to address clinician burnout as it previously did to address medical errors. Between one-third and one-half of U.S. clinicians experience burnout, which can include symptoms of depression.

Where you can find help

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress, or for those who are helping a person in crisis.
  • For online chat, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides a confidential chat window with counselors available 24/7.