Work shifts for doctors and medical mistakes

A study suggests that shorter shifts for doctors and other medical professionals may lead to more medical mistakes. Medical errors often occur during work shift changes because those just coming to work may not be as familiar with what has been going on regarding treatment of a patient.

A Pennsylvania doctor co-authored a paper regarding this phenomenon. Miscommunications take place, doctors and nurses taking over a case may not be as familiar with the patient’s history, and they also may be less “emotionally vested” in the care for this patient.

On the other hand, there are dangers in longer shifts when medical professionals suffer from fatigue. The Pennsylvania doctor’s solution to this problem is to allow doctors and nurses to take scheduled naps during a work shift.

A surprising finding in one study was that shorter shifts for interns were making more mistakes and still not getting enough sleep. It’s unclear why the interns were not getting any more sleep. However, the reason for additional mistakes came partly because the interns were not getting the work experience that they required, and also they were sometimes expected to do as much work as they were doing before while working less hours. Significantly, many hospitals did not hire additional staff, even though doctors and nurses were working less hours.

Attorneys will continue holding hospitals accountable for errors committed by their staffs. There is no magic answer to preventing of medical mistakes by doctors or nurses. But while further study is required to figure out how to reduce medical errors, hospitals have to step up by providing oversight, closer supervision and additional training to make certain that errors do not occur.

Source: Time, “Fewer Hours for Doctors in Training Leading to More Mistakes,” by Alexandra Sifferlin, March 26, 2013