NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 13, 2006

Medical residents are routinely scheduled to work shifts that last 24 hours or more, yet a new study suggests that these sleep-deprived doctors are at high risk of making medical mistakes that can harm or even kill patients, says Kathleen Fackelmann in USA Today.

During the year-long study, first-year medical residents were asked about work schedule, sleep and days as well as any medical errors they'd made while on duty.  Results showed:

  • Residents reported making 156 fatigue-related errors that injured a patient and 31 mistakes that led to a death.
  • That translates into a 700 percent increase in fatigue-related mistakes that harmed a patient and a 300 percent increase in mistakes that resulted in patient's death.

Some, however, discount the findings of the study.  Richard H. Bell Jr., assistant executive director of the American Board of Surgery, contends that 24-hour shifts are sometimes necessary to provide patients with crucial continuity of care.  For example, residents might need 24 hours to get a patient through surgery and then to pass on the details of the case to the next resident, he says.

But others say the threats are very real.  Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Charles Czeisler, one of the authors of the study, says about 100,000 medical residents in the USA routinely work these extended shifts, suggesting there are tens of thousands of preventable injuries to patients annually.

Source: Kathleen Fackelmann, "Long hospital shifts, lack of sleep can kill, study says," USA Today, December 12, 2006.

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