Does Overworking Medical Residents Lead to Medical Malpractice?

Posted on December 14, 2015 at 11:21am by

Photo of surgerySince 2003, the rule has been that medical residents are not allowed to work more than 16 consecutive hours without a break. That alone may seem ridiculous to some, but now a team of researchers is arguing that residents may be able to perform better and learn more on a 30 hour shift.

The researchers began the year-long study back in July, and have since been shadowing thousands of medical residents to see how they do following the current 16 hour structure versus the 30 hour shift that they propose.

Understandably, the researchers have stirred quite a bit controversy. The Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and the American Medical Student Association in particular have been leading the charge against the project. They are adamant that anything more than a 16-hour shift poses undue risk, because medical residents are more likely to hurt themselves or the patient if they try to stay awake for 30 hours.

“Tired residents are more likely to make mistakes when they’re caring for patients, and those mistakes in some cases can lead to catastrophic complications and even death,” says Michael Carome, who is head of the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

For example, overworking medical residents makes them more likely to make a mistake when drawing blood, potentially exposing themselves to viruses like HIV or hepatitis. Similarly, a sleep-deprived resident may be prone to medical malpractice mistakes, such as prescription errors, if they do not have enough sleep.

Residents who are part of the study have also begun speaking out in opposition. Such is the case for David Harari, who said he was prepared for the already grueling 16-hour shifts, but was flabbergasted when he was asked to stay at work for 30 hours.

“I can’t see how anyone could work optimally with such little sleep. It’s extremely difficult to stay awake, stay alert and function optimally at that level.” He said, adding that he was actually offended that he was not given a choice in the matter. The study is not something residents can opt in for or out of; if the hospital they work at is participating in the study, they are told they can participate or they can hit the road.


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