Shorter intern hours actually increase medical errors

First-year doctors-also called medical interns-typically work long hours. Until recently, these young doctors were on-call up to 36 hours. In 2003, regulations were put into place limiting their shifts to 30 hours. In 2011, regulators feared that the longer shifts were causing interns to become fatigued, putting them at a greater risk of making medical errors, so their shifts were further reduced to 16 hours.

Common sense may tell you that more rest would equal fewer medical mistakes. However, according to two recent studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine, this is not necessarily the case.

Johns Hopkins University conducted the first study. The study found that despite good intentions, shortening the shifts did not increase the amount of sleep each intern received. Additionally, the shorter shifts were actually detrimental in the intern's learning process, as they reduced the total amount of training time each intern received. Finally, as interns did not have as much time to treat patients, the shorter shifts also put patient safety at risk, by increasing the number of cases that were handed off between interns. Handing off patients among interns has been shown to increase the risk of medical errors.

In the second study, conducted by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, researchers surveyed 2,300 physicians at 12 hospital systems. The researchers surveyed interns every three months, comparing their responses to the responses of interns who worked longer shifts before 2011.

The study found that before the shorter shift rules went into effect in 2010, only about 19.9 percent of interns said that they made an error that harmed a patient. Once the shorter shifts were instituted, the number increased to 23.3 percent. The study also identified the type of errors committed: 50 percent were errors in medication; 20 percent were incorrect treatment; 20 percent were failures to diagnose; and 10 percent were procedural or surgical errors.

The researchers hypothesized that the reason for the increase in errors was because the interns felt that they had to do the same amount of work in a shorter time period. Additionally, the errors could possibly be attributed to a decrease in on-the-job "downtime" among interns.

A medical malpractice attorney can help

Hopefully as the health care system adjusts to the new rules, the number of errors will decline and patient safety will improve. However, if you have been injured by a medical error, in many cases it is the result of medical malpractice. Under Connecticut law, victims of malpractice are entitled to receive compensation for their injuries.

If you or a loved one have been injured because of a physician's mistakes, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney. An attorney can investigate the circumstances surrounding the mistake, ascertain whether malpractice occurred, and work to protect your right to compensation.