The horror began last September 14 when an experienced Seattle nurse realized she’d overdosed a fragile baby with 10 times too much medication. The stunned nurse told nearby staff at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital what had transpired. “It was in the line of, ‘Oh my God, I have given too much calcium,’” recalled a fellow nurse. In the nurse’s 24-year career, all of it spent at Seattle Children’s, dispensing 1.4 grams of calcium chloride — instead of the correct dose of 140 milligrams — was the sole serious medical mistake she’d ever made, according to the public investigation. “She was devastated, just devastated,” said her partner and co-parent of their two children. That mistake turned out to be the start of a life that unraveled, contributing not only to the child’s death, an eight-month-old girl, but also to Hiatt’s firing, a state nursing commission investigation — and Hiatt’s suicide at age 50.
This story highlights the twin casualties caused by serious medical errors: The patient is the first victim, the person hurt or killed by a preventable error. The second victim is the healthcare professional who has to live with the aftermath of making it.
There is no question that patients are the primary concern in a nation where one in seven Medicare patients experience serious harm because of medical errors and hospital infections each year. Another 180,000 patients die, according to a study by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General. That’s nearly twice the 98,000 deaths attributed to preventable errors in the important 1999 report “To Err is Human,” by the Institute of Medicine, which fired up the nation’s patient-safety movement. In the real world, doctors, nurses and other medical workers who commit errors are often traumatized, with reactions ranging from anxiety and sleeping problems to doubt about their professional abilities – as well as thoughts of suicide, according to two recent studies.
This sad story raises the issue of healthcare provider depression and burnout. Writing on the allnursing.com website, an anonymous nurse says “While visiting in the lounge one day, we discovered that every nurse there was on an anti-depressant. I have had ‘Treatment Resistant Depression’ for about 20 years — as long as I’ve been a nurse. Now I am totally burned out, on major meds, and am seeking disability due to depression/anxiety. I believe years of long hours, high stress, high expectations and little appreciation (from management, not patients) has contributed to this. How many other jobs consider you a traitor because you call in sick? And trying to get off for a sick child is an unforgivable sin. How many other jobs want you to work overtime on the days you are scheduled, call you at all hours of the night or day when you are off, first pleading with you to come in, then laying a guilt trip on you if you say “NO!” And let’s not forget the mandatory in-services and CEUs (continuing education units) that take time away from your family. If any profession should understand the importance of the individuals’ physical, mental, social and spiritual self it should be nursing — -after all we are taught in nursing school about treating the patient as a whole, not just a disease! Why don’t we treat our staff the same way.”
According to Anthony Cirillo on the Hospital Impact website,“Two studies suggest that nurses working in hospitals are much more susceptible to depression than their counterparts in clinics, schools or other locations, especially if their hospital is high-volume. A study in Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at the relationship between bed occupancy rates and absenteeism and found that those working in units that were 10 percent more crowded than the optimal rate had twice the rate of depressive illness than their counterparts in less crowded units. The second study, appearing in Health Policy, is based on data from the 2005 National Survey of the Work and Health of Nurses in Canada. While looking at absenteeism in general, the report notes that depression is a “significant determinant” for missed work among RNs and LPNs, and that those who work in a hospital are more likely than those working in other settings to miss work. One thing we might first observe is that with health reform, things will get much worse before they get better. At some point, the estimated 35 million newly insured Americans will seek healthcare, potentially burdening the system. And, of course this all impacts recruitment and retention and even further impacts whether folks choose to enter into the profession.”
According to the Nursing Center website, “Studies have also shown that nurses (the vast majority of whom are women) may be especially at risk. This study surveyed 150 medical-surgical nurses from three hospitals to determine the prevalence and predictors of depression among female nurses. All participants had at least a year of nursing experience and worked at least 20 hours per week. Most (93 percent) were white; they averaged 38 years of age and 10 years’ hospital nursing experience. Thirty-five percent of nurses had mild-to-moderate depressive symptoms; the most common included restless sleep, poor motivation, feeling bothered, and concentration problems; many reported feeling hopeful, happy, or joyful on only two days (or fewer) during the week before filling out the questionnaire. Somatic symptoms, stressful major life events, greater occupational stress, and lower income were correlated with the presence of depressive symptoms. Fatigue and low energy were bothersome to 43 percent of nurses; pain in extremities and joints, trouble sleeping, and back pain were also common. Having a mortgage or loan of more than $10,000 within the previous year was the most commonly reported (43 percent) stressful major life event. Others included changes in sleeping habits, vacation, and holidays. The most highly ranked occupational stressors were having insufficient time to provide emotional support to a patient and to complete nursing tasks, being required to complete many non-nursing tasks (such as paperwork), and inadequate staffing.”