Fatigued medical residents at higher risk of making errors

North Carolina residents who are closely tuned into television medical dramas get the feeling that young doctors are often asked to work incredibly long hours during their first few years in practice. Despite the glamorization that occurs on the TV screen, the effects of this habit can be devastating.

According to a recently released study, orthopedic surgical residents at two hospitals received just over five hours of sleep per night, on average. This “impairment,” which could be equated to legal intoxication, could result in tragic instances of surgical malpractice. Over the course of the study, the hospitals made attempts to limit the number of hours surgical residents spent working, but those efforts often fell short.

Shockingly, as young, exhausted doctors are put to work in very delicate medical situations, they were frequently operating at 70 percent “mental effectiveness,” which is akin to drunkenness. As a result of this altered mental state, caused by being overworked, the residents were 22 percent more likely to make a medical mistake, as compared to a physician receiving adequate amounts of sleep.

Though the study was not exhaustive and had some limitations, the trend revealed is alarming. Individuals that are chronically fatigued cannot function properly in many situations, such as driving, so it makes perfect sense that doctors would be prone to the same risks.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this study is the fact that this problem could be remedied quite easily. As such, medical institutions should be held accountable for negligent practices that increase the likelihood that patients are hurt. Certainly, young doctors should gain as much experience as possible to increase their effectiveness, but putting patients in harm’s way is not worth the risk.

Source: The Chicago Tribune, “Tired surgical residents may up error risk: study,” Andrew M. Seaman, May 21, 2012

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