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Physician fatigue can lead to surgical errors

Readers in the Houston, Texas, area are probably aware of the long hours many doctors work. While it is not uncommon and has been done for years, some safety advocates believe that the fatigue doctors experience after working many hours contributes to unnecessary and preventable medical errors. Some concerning studies have even shown that when doctors suffer from sleep deprivation it can lead to serious surgical errors. In response, advocates are now calling for regulations over the number of hours doctors can work.

In one study performed in 1998, results showed that surgical residents who remained awake all night made 20 percent more surgical mistakes and took almost 15 percent longer to perform surgical tasks when compared to surgical residents who slept during the night. Furthermore, a 2012 study published in the Archives of Surgery found that the average surgical resident who was sleep deprived was functioning at less than 80 percent of their total mental capacity for almost 50 percent of the time they were awake.

Current regulations restrict surgical residents from working over 80 hours per week. However, these numbers are tallied on a monthly basis, so if a surgical resident works 60 hours one week, that same resident could then legally work 100 hours, or more, the next week, as long as the total hours at the end of the month averages out to 80 hours a week. Current regulations also restrict surgical residents from working more than 16 hours in one shift.

Medical errors and surgical mistakes can happen due to a number of reasons. While some mistakes are simply unavoidable, other mistakes are not. Surgical errors caused by physician fatigue are preventable, and are therefore unacceptable. If a patient is injured by a surgeon who was sleep deprived, that person may be entitled to financial compensation. By filing a lawsuit for medical malpractice, the plaintiff could recover damages for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and punitive damages.

Source: Huffington Post, "Wake Up Call: Reforming Medical Resident Duty Hours," Amy Chen and Amy Guan, March 18, 2013

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