Doctor fatigue increases risk of medical mistakes

There's No Substitute for Experience

Sleep: Everyone needs it, but many of us are not actually getting enough of it. What's more, many doctors, who are performing life-saving -- or potentially life-threatening- surgeries, are among the most sleep deprived. This level of fatigue combined with such a fast-paced critical job can easily lead to medical mistakes with serious repercussions for patients.

Numerous studies have shown sleep deprivation among doctors is not only a problem, but that the risks are very serious. One study found that surgical complications increase when surgeons only have a six hour window between their last procedure of the day and their first surgery the following day.

Another study found that when residents were sleep deprived, they were 22 percent more likely to perform medical errors.

But just what can be done to ensure doctors and residents, who are those doctors starting their on-the-job training, are getting enough sleep?

The first thing is that doctors need to be better educated on recognizing the signs of fatigue. Just like anyone else, doctors are not the best at realizing they are tired. These lack of realization of fatigue only becomes worse the more fatigued they actually are.

Additionally, more needs to be done in order to combat the fatigue that comes from work demands. For example, many doctors have on-call hours and rotating shift work. This means that while one day their hours may be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the next day the same doctor could end up having to work from noon until 8 p.m.

With shift work, while it may be the nature of the job, solutions are available. These solutions just need to be further explored and adopted. For example, when it comes to shifts, the body can better adjust when the time is moved in a clockwise direction. This means it's better to move from day hours to evenings and overnights, instead of from overnights to daytime hours.

Genetics also play a role in sleep. Some doctors are naturally more night owls, while others are early birds. This should be taken into account when creating work schedules.

The hope is that going forward, as the risks and complications associated with doctor fatigued are further researched, more will be done to better protect patients from needless medical mistakes caused by sleepiness.

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