how your doctors sleep deprivation can jeopardize your health

This past Wednesday morning, people all over the country more than likely came to work a bit bleary-eyed after a late night spent watching election coverage. In fact, it’s a good bet that despite consuming numerous cups of coffee, many employees either didn’t get their work done or failed to work up to their usual standards.

While late nights like these are an anomaly for most workers, they are standard practice for the medical community. From obstetricians fielding calls from expecting mothers in the middle of the night to cardiac surgeons performing lengthy emergency operations to third-year residents seeing patients in the middle of a nearly 30 hour shift, fatigue and sleep deprivation is the norm for many physicians.

Unfortunately, with these long hours and accompanying exhaustion comes an increased risk of very serious medical errors. To illustrate, consider the results of the following studies:

  • One study found that the number of surgical errors/complications increased dramatically when a performing surgeon had less than six hours of sleep between their last evening surgery and first morning surgery
  • Another study found that interns who worked five or more extended-hour shifts in the span of one month reported 300 percent more fatal fatigue-related medical errors and that sleep deprived residents were 22 percent more likely to commit some sort of medical mistake

The problem, experts say, is that many physicians view these long hours as a sort of badge of honor, meaning it’s something that simply has to be both endured — and overcome — in order to succeed. In fact, this mindset is grilled into physicians as early as their residency, where they frequently work shifts exceeding 24 hours.

(Somewhat alarmingly, studies have shown that on the Epworth Sleep Scale — a measurement of daytime sleepiness — residents routinely ranked somewhere between patients with narcolepsy and sleep apnea. In other words, they are often measurably impaired, sometimes extremely so.)

While the medical community finally adopted some new restrictions back in 2011 concerning the number of hours worked, these new restrictions only pertain to first-year residents who can now work only 16-hour shifts before a mandatory eight-hour break. As for second-year residents and third-year residents, they can work shifts of up to 28 hours, while specialists are not necessarily subject to any such work hour restrictions.

Isn’t it truly frightening to think that the doctor who is performing your vital medical or surgical procedure may be running on almost no sleep?

Source: The Huffington Post, “Doctors are human; they need sleep,” Michael Breus, Nov. 5, 2012

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