Worker fatigue has steadily become a major concern across multiple industries as health professionals, researchers, and government officials acknowledge the serious ramifications of a lack of sleep on the human body. There is no doubt that we need regular and consistent sleep to function properly, but it is becoming more apparent that fatigue contributes heavily to slower response times, failures of high-level cognitive functions, and poor decision-making. Like choosing to forego sleep.

While most of this research is focused is on how fatigue impacts drivers, it should also take a look at the state of the healthcare industry.

How Hospital Shifts Are Regulated

The average work shift in the United States involves over 40 hours in a given week, and nearly 15 million workers work full-time at night or have irregular shifts, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These numbers are no surprise to the average worker, but hospital employees are often expected to go above and beyond these numbers.

This is typical among residents, who once upon a time worked between 90-100 hours in a week and often worked for 36 consecutive hours, as reported by the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). As outlined by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), current laws limit all residents to a maximum of 80 hours in a week, 26 consecutive hour shifts, one day off a week, and a maximum of three night shifts in a row. Sadly, these restrictions only came into place after patients died as a result of mistakes made by fatigued healthcare workers.

Opinions are mixed on how effective these regulations are. Some medical professionals argue that the limitations on resident work hours reduce their overall competence and ability to learn important surgical skills. There are also arguments that patients will receive less consistent care from regular doctors, instead being treated by multiple professionals who are unfamiliar with their cases. However, while there is no conclusive data to suggest that the work-hour regulations have increased or decreased patient safety, they did have a positive impact on resident health and performance, as noted in a study published on PubMed Central.

Is Fatigue Still an Issue for Doctors and Nurses?

Medical professionals are just capable as any other worker of making catastrophic errors as a result of sleep deprivation. Research conducted by the Patient Safety Network, in accordance with the AHRQ, identified that up to 75% of medical professionals have suffered from fatigue and that both doctor and nursing errors increase the longer a work shift is.

Sleep plays a massive role in how our brains operate. Healthcare professionals often tout the importance of a consistent seven- to nine-hour sleep schedule to live a healthy, but they should hold themselves to these same standards. Sleep deprivation can heavily impact a person’s ability to:

  • Perform complex motor functions
  • Recall basic information and store new information
  • Regulate their emotions and make logical decisions
  • Maintain balance
  • Keep focused and concentrate

When Fatigue Leads to Malpractice

When a doctor, surgeon, or nurse is not able to function at the top of their abilities, patients suffer the consequences. A doctor may end up misreading a patient’s charts and come to a wrong conclusion about how to proceed with treatment, contributing to a misdiagnosis. Or fatigue could cause a nurse or lab worker to misplace important test results, delaying vital information and treatment. In the most serious situations, a surgeon may make a fatal error when operating on a patient or contribute to a hospital infection.

Fatigue should never be allowed to impact patient care. Doctors should rigorously follow all shift regulations to avoid becoming sleep-deprived and making catastrophic mistakes, and hospitals should hold them to these regulations. Failure to do so can seriously injure patients, and even kill them.

If you or someone you love was injured by a negligent medical professional, you may be able to hold them accountable in a medical malpractice claim. By working with experienced and skilled New York medical malpractice lawyers, you may be able to recover full compensation for your injuries and trauma. Contact the team at Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro & Halperin, LLP. We have more than 50 years of experience and can thoroughly review your case in a free consultation. Call our office at (212) 986-7353 to learn your legal options after a medical error.

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Posted in: Medical Malpractice