The Dangers of Sleep Deprived Doctors and Nurses: By the Numbers

Posted By Regan Zambri Long, PLLC || 22-Mar-2017

For many healthcare professionals, the battle to get enough sleep is a constant challenge. Many resident physicians are on call for 24 hours at a time, often in recurring shifts. Nurses commonly work 13-14 hours at a time—sometimes longer—and are often asked to come back for coinciding night and/or day shifts.

Does sleep deprivation affect patient safety? Many studies say it does. By the numbers, here are a few highlights from a report from the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety:

  • Physicians-in-training who work consecutive 24-hour shifts are five times more likely to make serious diagnostic errors, and three times more likely to make medical errors leading to patient death.
  • The same physicians-in-training are twice as likely to make a mistake during the nighttime portion of their 24-hour shift.
  • Nurses who work shifts exceeding 12.5 hours make up to 3.3 times more errors in patient care.

Patients aren’t the only ones at risk; sleep-deprived healthcare workers may endanger themselves, as well. According to the same report, physicians who drive home after a 24-hour shift are twice as likely to have an automobile accident, and both doctors and nurses who are sleep-deprived are far more likely to experience needlestick injuries from contaminated needles, making them more susceptible to contract deadly diseases.

Additional Risks

The BC Medical Journal compiled a report of numerous similar studies. These studies conclude that among other things, sleep deprivation in physicians may cause:

  • Greater impairment in math and communication skills (leading to medical error)
  • Reduced empathy for patients
  • Reduced quality when performing intubations
  • Increased number of errors in ICU

Protecting Yourself

While the medical community attempts to reduce the incidents of sleep deprivation, many healthcare workers still work too many hours, too closely together. To reduce your own risk of experiencing medical errors in these situations, try seeking medical attention during the day, if possible, since more medical errors occur at night. If you go to the ER or an urgent care center, ask to be treated by someone who has just begun his/her shift. If you suspect someone who is treating you is suffering from fatigue, speak up and ask for a replacement.

For more information on protecting yourself or a loved one from medical errors in an emergency room setting, see this recent article.

If you’ve been a victim of medical error, our D.C. medical malpractice attorneys can help. Call us for a free consultation.

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