US health care system causing 'moral injury' among doctors, nurses

At the crux of moral injury in physicians is their inability to consistently meet patients' needs, a symptom of a health care environment that’s increasingly focused on maximizing profit

The emphasis on speed and money — rather than patient care — in emergency medicine is leading to mass exasperation and burnout among clinicians across the country.

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According to a new report published by Kaiser Health News, a model of emergency care is forcing doctors to practice “fast and loose medicine,” including excessive testing that leaves patients burdened with hefty medical bills; prioritizing speed at the cost of quality care and overcrowding in hospitals, among other issues.

“The health system is not set up to help patients,” Dr. Nick Sawyer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of California-Davis, told Kaiser Health. “It’s set up to make money.”

In October, a 312-page report published by the National Academy of Medicine, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., found that up to half of all clinicians have reported “substantial” feelings of burnout, including exhaustion, high depersonalization and a low sense of personal accomplishment.

Physician burnout can result in increased risk to patients, malpractice claims, clinician absenteeism, high employee turnover and overall reduced productivity. In addition to posing a threat to the safety of patients and physicians, burnout carries a hefty economic cost: A previous study published in June by the Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that physician burnout costs the U.S. economy roughly $4.6 billion per year, or $7,600 per physician per year.

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Physicians suffering from burnout are at least twice as likely to report that they’ve made a major medical error in the last three months, compared to their colleagues, and they’re also more likely to be involved in a malpractice litigation suit, the report found. Each year, about 2,400 physicians leave the workforce -- and the No. 1 factor is burnout.

The authors of the report, who spent 18 months studying research on burnout, found that between 35 and 54 percent of nurses and doctors experience burnout. Among medical students and residents, the percentage is as high as 60 percent.

“There is a serious problem of burnout among health care professionals in this country, with consequences for both clinicians and patients, health care organizations and society,” the report said.

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But the issue in emergency medicine goes beyond burnout. A 2018 report published by Drs. Wendy Dean and Simon Talbot found that physicians are facing a “profound and unrecognized threat” to their well-being: moral injury.

The term “moral injury” was first used to describe soldiers’ response to war and is frequently diagnosed as post-traumatic stress. It represents “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”

At the crux of moral injury in physicians is their inability to consistently meet patient’s needs, a symptom of a health-care environment that’s increasingly focused on maximizing profit that leaves clinicians trapped between navigating an ethical path or “making a profit from people at their sickest and most vulnerable.”

“The moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war,” Dean and Talbot wrote. “It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care.”

In the one year since they published their paper, Dean and Talbot sparked an international conversation among health care professionals about the moral foundations of medicine, receiving a flood of responses.

“All of us who work in health care share, at least in the abstract, a single mission: to promote health and take care of the ill and injured. That’s what we’re trained to do,” they wrote. “But the business of health care — the gigantic system of administrative machinery in which health care is delivered, documented, and reimbursed — keeps us from pursuing that mission without anguish or conflict.”

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