Mind & Body

For Doctors, Lack Of Sleep Might Be Better Than The Alternative

Have you ever wondered why, when they're so important to the survival of so many, medical professionals need to work longer hours than your average truck driver? It all comes down to statistics: between going home for the night and handing off your patient to another doctor, or sticking around and working without sleep, the latter may just be safer.

Why It Matters

Everybody knows the trope of the overworked hospital resident, grabbing a few minutes of shut-eye in a supply closet on hour 20 of a 30-hour shift. Turns out, there's a reason for this.

In 1984, an 18-year-old woman named Libby Zion died after being admitted to the hospital with a high fever. Her father, Sidney Zion, learned that her doctor had been on duty for nearly 24 hours at the time, and sued the hospital. Publicity from the event led to reforms throughout the nation that cut the number of hours that doctors could work. But contrary to what you might expect, those reforms did nothing to reduce medical errors. A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that even though doctor-in-training shifts had been slashed by nearly half in many cases, there were no significant differences between the number of errors committed by the well-rested doctors and those committed by doctors two years before shift regulations were put in place.

Smart Graphic

Why People Should Know

One big reason for this is probably the risk posed by changing a patient's doctor; a routine known as a "patient handoff" in the medical profession. Handoffs require a lot of clear communication on every detail about a patient's condition and treatment—multiplied by the number of patients usually under a doctor's care, that's a lot of details that can get lost. A two-week study at Yale-New Haven Hospital found that one in four handoffs resulted in errors, often from poor communication. At the time of the new hour limits, there wasn't a standardized protocol for patient handoffs.

Obviously, neither a sleep-deprived nor an under-informed doctor is ideal when you're a hospital patient. The medical field is working to standardize the process of patient handoffs while keeping limits on how long a doctor can work a single shift. But for now, if your doctor has been working through the night, smile—it could be worse.

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Written by Ashley Hamer December 9, 2016

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