Sleep Deprivation Among Medical Residents Increases Medical Errors

On Behalf of | Nov 7, 2016 | Medical Malpractice

According to medical studies, long work shifts and sleep deprivation are putting both medical students and their patients at risk for injuries. Studies show that sleep deprivation impairs medical residents’ performance and exposes patients to increased medical errors. In Illinois, patients who suffer from medical errors often file medical malpractice lawsuits with a Chicago medical malpractice attorney.

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Medical Residents Work Long Hours

Various medical studies confirm that sleep deprivation in medical residents due to excessively long work shifts increases patient risks for injuries and fatalities. It also increases residents’ risk of illness, accidents, and injuries, including depression and psychosis, motor vehicle accidents after a shift, and needle-stick injuries that increase exposure to blood-born pathogens. Despite these concerns, many physicians and medical groups are pushing the ACGME to allow first-year medical residents to work 28 or more hours without sleep in a single shift.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) sets work-hour rules and policies for medical residents in the United States. Currently, medical residents are allowed to work up to 80 hours a week, with a maximum of 30 hours straight in a single shift. Programs must allow residents one day off out of every 7 days, a minimum of 10 hours off between daily work schedules, and may not schedule more than one in-house call shift every three nights.

First-year residents, referred to as interns, often work 16 duty hours in a single shift. Many surgical and emergency room residents work up to 30 duty hours, the maximum hours allowed in a single shift. A Chicago medical malpractice attorney often sees patients with medical injuries who were unaware that they were being treated by sleep-deprived residents.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation

According to the Sleep Medicine Department at Harvard Medical School, when medical residents work longer than 24 hours in a single shift without sleep, their performance is likely to be severely impaired. The impairment is equivalent to being drunk, and the risk of serious medical errors increases by more than 300 percent. Sleep-deprived medical residents create a serious public health and safety concern and put patients in harm’s way for injuries and hospital-related infections.

According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep deprivation can occur with four hours or less of uninterrupted sleep per night. There are many health studies that link even mild sleep deprivation or poor sleep efficiency to lower academic performance, as well as physical problems with cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immunologic, and nervous systems. Sleep deprivation also leads to serious errors in judgment, often resulting in injury or death. Families of patients who die from medical injuries in Illinois hospitals commonly file wrongful death lawsuits with a Chicago medical malpractice attorney.

Medical Errors and Patient Safety

In the United States, between 50,000 and 100,000 patients die in hospitals from medical errors every year. Studies show that sleep deprivation among medical residents contributes to errors in judgment and poorer medical care for patients. Medical studies reveal that:

  • Residents with five or more overnight call shifts per month committed more fatigue-related medical errors that resulted in adverse patient outcomes.

  • Residents who worked more than 24 hours without sleep experienced problems with alertness, lack of motivation, and depression.

  • Surgical residents who were awake the previous night before surgery made 20 percent more surgical errors, and took 14 percent longer to complete surgical tasks.


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