pittsburgh school of medicine links fatigue medical mistakes

Scientists have been studying the importance of sleep since the early 1900s, and researchers keep reaching the same conclusions. Our bodies need sleep, and lack of sleep leads to irritability and difficulty concentrating. It is also known that sleep-deprived individuals may struggle to complete even basic tasks. Recent studies have even shown that drowsy driving is more dangerous than drunk driving.

Regardless, doctors, nurses and other health care professionals are often scheduled for extremely long shifts, forcing them to get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. Doctors may feel the effects of their fatigue as they’re yawning through the day, but patients are the ones who feel it most.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied EMS workers throughout the country to learn about their sleep habits. The results showed a strong correlation between EMS fatigue and medical mistakes.

The researchers used the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index to measure a variety of factors of sleep, including sleep duration and the use of sleeping medication. The researchers also used a questionnaire to measure physical and mental fatigue. This data was compared with information gathered about injury, medical errors, adverse events and safety-compromising behaviors.

The information collected by the University of Pittsburgh is alarming, and one can’t help but wonder whether the results will be an impetus toward sleep requirements for health care professionals.

More than half of the individuals in the study were classified as fatigued; 41 percent reported a medical error or adverse event; and 90 percent reported safety-compromising behavior. Moreover, the researchers found that injuries were 1.9 times greater for fatigued respondents compared with their non-fatigued peers; the chances of medical errors were 2.2 times greater; and the odds of safety-compromising behavior were 3.6 times greater.

The statistics are alarming, but a solution would not need to be expensive or complicated. Requiring doctors to get a certain amount of sleep could help save the lives of innocent patients, and it could significantly reduce the likelihood of errors and safety-compromising behavior.

Some hospitals might object, saying that adopting practices like limiting the length of shifts and the number of on-call hours per week might mean they would need to hire additional staff. But how does that expense stack up against the cost to patients when exhausted doctors make critical errors? And in a purely financial sense, is it really more expensive to appropriately staff a facility than to pay damages to the individuals and families who will inevitably suffer if doctors continue to be sleep-deprived?

EMS responders are supposed to be the first line of protection for a person experiencing a health crisis; however, entrusting the life of a severely injured or ill patient to someone who is so fatigued they are struggling to maintain basic functions does little more than place that patient’s life in even greater jeopardy.

For the sake of patients and their families in Pennsylvania and nationwide, something has to change.

Source: UPI.com, “EMS fatigue linked to injuries, errors,” Nov. 19, 2011

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