Study Shows Drowsy Surgical Residents Increase Risk of Error

When patients enter the hospital to have surgery, they trust that their surgeons are alert and able to perform the surgery to the best of their abilities. However, the results of a recent study show that despite reduced work hour requirements for first-year students, surgical residents are still not getting enough sleep. As a result, they are extremely fatigued during waking hours, increasing their risk of error while performing surgery.

The study gathered information relating to the residents sleep and exercise habits, as well as their use of alcohol, sedatives or stimulants. The residents also logged sleep and work times, and wore a special device to measure activity levels at certain times of the day.

The data revealed the residents averaged 5.3 hours of sleep per night. The lowest amount of sleep recorded was 2.8 hours, while the highest was 7.8. The residents also read less than one hour per day and a third of the residents drank two to three cups of coffee per day.

This means that residents were functioning at about 70 percent mental effectiveness for 27 percent of their waking hours. According to the researchers, 70 percent mental effectiveness is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of .08. This level is considered legally drunk in most states.

Not surprisingly, fatigue levels were higher for night shift workers compared to day shift workers. Residents working night shifts logged fewer sleep hours and functioned at less than 70 percent effectiveness more frequently.

Based on these findings, the study estimates that surgical residents functioning at this level have a 22 percent higher risk of error. However, the researchers caution that this number is merely a prediction. Actual errors caused from fatigued surgical residents were not recorded.

Additionally, only around 40 percent of residents participated in the study. The researchers are determining how these findings can be put to good use or applied to other medical residents.

Despite the limitations, the results of the study still provide several benefits. The lead researcher states that although the fatigue levels were higher than expected, the data helps define the areas that need focus.

Reduced work hours and fewer overnight shifts are methods some hospitals are adopting to reduce the risk of error caused by fatigued surgical residents. Other hospitals are monitoring tired residents and intervening when possible.

An individual injured during surgery due to the negligence of a fatigued surgeon may be entitled to compensation. An experienced medical malpractice attorney can provide guidance and assist with obtaining any available damages.