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Studies show shorter resident shifts lead to more mistakes

Sleep-deprivation, in any line of work, usually causes people to make mistakes. In the medical field, where the lives of patients in Albuquerque are at stake, these errors can cause harm or even death. For this reason, hospitals have tested new methods of preventing medical resident and doctor errors.

Although it may seem logical that medical residents who get more sleep would perform their jobs with fewer errors, recent studies have shown that the reverse is true. In fact, when residents' shifts were shortened from 30 to 16 hours, hospitals reported an increase in medical errors. When given additional time off, the residents were apparently filling their time with activities other than sleep. The shorter shifts may have added more stress to the residents' jobs, which would likely affect their performance. Also, when medical residents spend less time working, they're also learning less, and this can prove harmful to patients.

Several hospitals will likely revise this schedule, as their original plan to reduce errors due to sleepiness has backfired. The study also pointed out that the frequency of errors can increase when medical staff changes shifts more often, as the transition can lead to lapses in communication between medical care providers.

Unless medical schools find a way to make sure that medical residents are getting adequate sleep during their time off, the shorter shifts will probably never help to reduce the incidence of errors. Whether the mistake is caused by the hospital's staff sleepiness or by other factors, people who are victims can seek compensation for additional medical costs or funeral expenses if the error proves fatal.

Source: USA Today, "Studies: Residents make more errors on shorter shifts," Janice Lloyd, March 25, 2013

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