Studies show that shorter shifts lead to more medical errors

People in Chicago often shudder to think about the long hours doctors may be working. Hospital doctors tend to work very long shifts, and many patients and their families might wonder if such schedules could lead to fatigue and related medical errors. In 2011, an oversight board did decide to curb the length of shifts young doctors were allowed to work, but research has now revealed that the regulation backfired.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education reduced the number of hours doctors in training could work without breaks from 30 to 16 a couple of years ago, and two studies have now shown that this may have led to an increased number of medical mistakes.

Both of the studies have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. One found that medical errors increased as much as 15 to 20 percent among resident doctors who worked shorter shifts. The shorter shifts also reportedly did not affect the number of hours doctors slept or improve rates of depression among doctors.

While the exact reason for the increase in medical mistakes has not been uncovered, it has been suggested that by working fewer hours, the young doctors may be forced to do more work in less time. Additionally, with additional shift changes comes additional chances for “handoff risks,” according to the lead author of one of the studies.

This author stated that more study needs to be done, but that it does appear that 30-hour shifts result in better care.

Hopefully, more research will be done to learn more about this issue in order to ensure that doctors’ schedules do not lead to medical malpractice. When patients do suffer from a medical error, there may be legal recourse available. It is wise to seek legal advice about one’s rights in the aftermath of such an event.

Source: USA Today, “Studies: Residents make more errors on shorter shifts,” Janice Lloyd, March 25, 2013

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