How Tired Are Doctors and Nurses, Really? (By the Numbers)

Tired doctors make more mistakes. Intuitively, we know this. And we may have read studies like this one (or related news reports). Yet medical culture still glorifies 28-hour shifts and puts residents through the ringer, often forcing them to work 80-hour weeks, all on an irregular sleep schedule that makes recovery from fatigue harder. The medical field has tried in the past to address this worrying problem, but how much have they achieved in recent years?

How Tired Is Your Doctor?

Regulations prohibit doctors from working more than 80 hours in a week or in excess of 28 hours in one shift. But doctors still work a lot. The average physician today works 59.6 hours a week. One survey found that 20% of residents reported that they had fallen asleep at work at one point in their career. These numbers paint a picture of a healthcare workforce that is chronically fatigued—one that puts patients at risk.

Believe it or not, this state of affairs represents an improvement. In the 1970s, doctors frequently worked in excess of 100 hours a week. Between 2003 and 2011, regulations finally put restrictions on this workaholic culture, limiting doctors to 80-hour weeks and 28-hour shifts. In most cases, those who suffer the most sleep deprivation are doctors in their first few years of practice—known as residents or interns.

Doctor exhaustion contributes to issues such as poor patient empathy and even the erosion of the patient-doctor bond. Overworked and exhausted, physicians may tune out, leading to callous decision-making and insensitive behaviors. The Atlantic describes some additional abuse young doctors suffer: “residents are also a cheap source of skilled labor that can fill gaps in coverage. They are paid a fixed, modest salary that, on an hourly basis, is on par with that paid to hospital cleaning staff—and even, on an absolute basis, about half of what nurse practitioners typically earn, while working more than twice as many hours.”

If a sleep-deprived doctor or surgeon caused harm to you or a loved one, contact our Washington D.C. medical malpractice attorneys to obtain fair compensation. Get in touch to learn more.