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Long hours by medical residents can compromise patient care

After graduating medical school, doctors-in-training go through residencies where they gain hands-on experience helping patients. As part of the residency, it is common for residents to work 16-hour or 24-hour shifts. Once viewed as a rite of passage for residents, many in the medical community have questioned whether these long hours are necessary or healthy.

The main advantage of long shift is the doctor's ability to examine patients over a longer period of time and adjusting treatments as necessary. The disadvantages of this approach are clear. No one, even a highly-trained doctor, is immune from the effects of sleep deprivation. By working such long hours, residents are more likely to make harmful and even fatal errors and commit medical malpractice.

In response to these issues, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) placed limits on residents' hours. These limits are:

  • Residents can work no more than 80 hours a week on average over a four week period
  • First-year residents can only work 16 hour shifts
  • After the first year, residents can work 24 hour shifts, and up to 30 hours in limited instances

The ACGME introduced these limits in 2011. After five years, the medical community is measuring these impacts.

Reducing the length of medical residents' shifts could have downsides

Limiting residents' hours has had one potentially negative impact. By working fewer hours, there are more "handoffs", or transitions between doctors. These transitions are a critical time in any patient's care, as miscommunication between doctors can lead to errors. There is no question that the healthcare profession should take steps to better manage handoffs.

Making matters even more complicated, a study from the American College of Surgeons found that surgical residents who worked longer hours had patient outcomes that were no different than surgical residents who worked limited hours.

Even if this is true, the fact remains that sleep deprivation leads to exhaustion and poor judgment. Healthcare professionals need to strike a balance that allows for optimal patient outcomes while allowing residents to work the hours they need to work.

If you or someone you love has been harmed by an act of medical malpractice, it is important to discuss your situation with a knowledgeable attorney. For years, the injury lawyers of Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor have helped people across Delaware recover the financial resources they need after an act of medical malpractice.

Source: Working to exhaustion: How medical residents' long shifts put patients at risk, STAT, June 8, 2016, by Tejal K. Gandhi and Patricia A. McGaffigan

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