News Column

Med Studies: Short Shifts, More Error

March 26, 2013
med jobs

A workplace regulation designed to limit hours worked by doctors in training to improve patient safety and enhance medical residents' well-being has backfired and needs to be re-evaluated, according to two reports out Monday.

At the heart of both studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association is the length of time a young doctor is allowed to work without taking a break. A medical oversight board decreased that time from 30 hours to 16 in 2011 in part to "protect patients from errors made by sleepy doctors," says one of the studies done at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Those researchers say the shorter shift has not improved young doctors' depression rates or how long they sleep. Most concerning: Medical errors harming patients increased 15 percent-20 percent among residents compared with residents who worked longer shifts.

"Teaching hospitals haven't invested in extra help to shoulder any of the clinical work that has to be done," says physician Elizabeth Wiley, president of the American Medical Student Association, who was not involved with the study. "It could be the interns are required to do the same amount of work in less time."

Federal regulations, which oversee most workplace hours, do not apply to residency programs. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education sets the guidelines and has been revising them since 2003. The changes have "unintended consequences" and have been under scrutiny because there wasn't good data to support them, says Sanjay Desai, lead author of the other study out of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

The shorter shift, as that study reports, has "many negative downsides," including increasing the number of "handoff risks." The number of times a patient's care changes hands -- handoffs -- increases when shorter work schedules boost the size of the health care team.

Both reports found that residents failed to increase the amount of sleep they get overall per week.

In the Michigan study, the researchers sent out surveys to students entering 2009, 2010 and 2011 residency programs across the USA. A total of 2,323 interns at more than 14 teaching hospitals responded every three months to questions about mental health, overall well-being, sleep habits, work hours and performance on the job.

In addition to the increase in self-reported medical errors, 20 percent of the residents screened positive for depression.

"We need to keep evaluating schedules," Desai says.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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