While television is notorious for exaggerating reality, there is one thing the medical sitcoms have correct: medical interns work ridiculously long hours. Two unpublished studies that aim to examine how those long hours might affect work quality and safety have recently come under criticism. The concern is patient safety—as it should be—but the studies have been permitted to move forward. And that has a lot of medical professionals worried that medical errors relating to sleep deprivation will increase.
Doctors That Never Sleep
In one study, Northwestern University has allegedly assigned hundreds of first-year residents to work shifts of up to 28 consecutive hours. They will be working in hospitals across the country. The Institute of Medicine suggests they work no longer than 16 consecutive hours. However, current rules do allow most residents to work 28-hour shifts routinely. Some residents have reported working 30, with only short naps to tide them over until their shift ends.
In addition to working long hours, physician schedules also fail to provide for restful sleep. The hours that they are not working, may be spent “on call,” which can lead to frequent interruptions of sleep. All the way around, the medical field, ironically, fails to accommodate one of the body’s most important daily functions.
What Sleep Does for the Body
For doing “nothing,” our bodies and brains do a lot while we sleep. Our brain reorganizes, processes, and compresses thoughts and memories. Our muscles, tissues, and joints rest and rejuvenate. And hormones needed to control everything from appetite to alertness are released to prepare our bodies for the next day. Without this time (or when we do not receive adequate, restful sleep), our bodies and brains start to go haywire.
The Risks of Sleep Deprivation
When we do not receive enough sleep, our brains do not function at full capacity: our ability to learn is decreased, our reaction time increases, and we make more mistakes. In doctors, this translates into a higher risk of harm to themselves and harm to patients. While a senior physician typically oversees interns, there are still procedures for which the interns are left to fend for themselves. Untrained and sleep deprived, they may miss important signs or symptoms in a patient or, even worse, cause direct harm to a patient.
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