study explores effectiveness of restrictions on resident work hours

While long hours have traditionally been viewed as one of the rites of passage for physicians-in-training, experts long wondered whether this was necessary or even dangerous, perhaps contributing to a greater number of fatigue-related medical mistakes.

Interestingly enough, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), the body responsible for setting the various standards governing the nearly 9,500 medical residency programs here in the U.S., introduced some major changes to the work hours of medical residents a little over four years ago.

To recap, these changes called for hospitals to start introducing the following concerning their residents, meaning medical school graduates undergoing anywhere from three to five years of training in a specialized field:

  • First-year residents are no longer able to work shifts longer than 16 straight hours and must be under the supervision of senior physicians at all times while working in-house.
  • Residents must receive at least 14 hours off the clock after completion of 24-hour shifts.
  • Residents working 24-hour shifts cannot spend any more than four hours conducting handoffs, which is essentially the transfer of a patient’s care to another provider.

The reason behind this rather bold move by the ACGME back in 2011 was primarily to reduce the risk of serious medical errors caused by fatigued doctors-in-training.

As it turns out, however, separate studies conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 determined these new work-hour restrictions on residents actually had very little impact on outcomes among general surgical patients.

In recent developments, yet another study — this one by researchers with the American College of Surgeons — found this same result held true even among surgical patients who underwent more specialized procedures in specialty areas like neurosurgery and obstetrics/gynecology.

We’ll examine this study in our next post …

In the meantime, consider consulting with an experienced legal professional if either you or a loved one has endured unimaginable harm due to a surgical error, substandard postoperative care or any other type of hospital negligence.

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