tired surgeons as impaired as drunk drivers cause surgical errors

Everyone knows why it’s dangerous to get behind the wheel after having a few drinks. Your reaction time decreases and your judgment is impaired, among other things. Recent studies have shown that driving when you’re exhausted can be as dangerous as driving when drunk. But what about completing other activities when you’re exhausted?

A recent study showed that exhausted surgeons increase their risk of surgical errors by operating on patients when they are exhausted. Many of the surgeons completed operations when they were so tired that they were only functioning at about 70 percent of their mental effectiveness. The researchers stated that 70 percent mental effectiveness is equivalent to having a .08 blood alcohol level, at which point an individual would be considered legally drunk in Pennsylvania.

Although the study was small, the results were telling. The surgical residents in the study averaged five and a half hours of sleep a night. Even though rules were enacted to limit the number of hours surgical residents worked, that may not be enough.

Many surgeons work unusual hours, and they manipulate their bodies to get accustomed to the schedule. Several surgeons reported using sedatives or alcohol to fall asleep. Then, when it’s time to get moving, they rely on caffeine and other stimulants to jumpstart and fuel their bodies. It may be enough to keep them awake, but it’s probably not enough to keep them mentally alert through their shifts.

If rules regulating the number of hours surgeons can work are not enough to ensure that surgeons are alert while performing procedures, there may be other ways to reduce the number of surgical errors caused by exhausted health care professionals. Read more in our upcoming posts to learn about the suggested solutions.

Source: Fox News, “Tired surgical residents may up error risk, study suggests,” Reuters, May 22, 2012

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