Surgeon fatigue increases chances of surgical error

Anyone who has seen ER or Grey’s Anatomy knows that doctors often work long hours. While the practice may be common, there is concern among some safety advocates that fatigue contributes to unnecessary and preventable medical errors. In fact, a number of studies conducted over the last several decades suggest that sleep deprivation can lead serious surgical errors. The news has some advocates calling for duty hour regulations.

According to a 1998 study, surgical residents who remained awake all night made 20 percent more mistakes during surgery and took nearly 15 percent longer to complete surgical tasks than those who slept. In support of these findings, a 2012 study published in the Archives of Surgery found that the average sleep-deprived surgical resident was functioning at less than 80 percent of their mental capacity for approximately half of the time that they were awake.

Under current regulations, surgical residents can work up to, but not more than, 80 hours per week. This number is measured monthly, which means many residents can actually get away with working longer hours. The current regulations also prohibit surgeons from working shifts longer than 16 hours. While a 16-hour day and an 80-hour week may seem excessive to most people, this is actually a drastic change to the previous regulations.

There are many reasons for medical errors and surgical mistakes. While some mistakes may be unavoidable other medical mistakes are not. Preventable medical errors, such as those caused by physician fatigue, are simply unacceptable. If someone is injured due to a sleep-deprived surgeon they may be entitled to damages. Damages for a medical malpractice claim can include medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and even punitive damages.

Source: Huffington Post, “Wake Up Call: Reforming Medical Resident Duty Hours,” March 18, 2013