Are Patients Safe with Fatigued Hospital Workers?

Resident physician fatigue—or ‘burnout’ as it can also manifest– has been shown, in multiple studies, to contribute to a large number of medical errors observed in the United States.  Physicians under stress from long work hours and lack of sleep simply cannot perform to the standard that could be reached with adequate rest time.  The Journal of the American Medical Association explored the subject in multiple articles on burnout, asserting that as many as 30-40% of resident physicians experience burnout in their careers.

Many hospitals have not assessed the way their shift schedules, staff levels, and policies affect the sleep patterns of their personnel, which can result in medical errors that are linked directly to lack of sleep and fatigue.

Christopher Landrigan, M.D., who runs a sleep and patient safety program at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, explains, “We have a culture of working long hours, and the impact of fatigue has not been a part of our consciousness.”

How fatigue manifests:

  • Residents who work multiple 24-hour shifts are twice as likely to be inattentive to patients
  • Diminishes attention to detail
  • Lapses in memory
  • Inability to communicate articulately and completely
  • Diminished capacity to solve problems effectively

So, as a patient, it’s important to be aware of how your caregivers appear— they may not be performing as well as they think they are.

Factors like shift schedules and changes can be important factors is assessing how care was given and its quality when evaluating a Pennsylvania medical malpractice case.  The transition from one pair of hands to another in shift changes has also shown to be problematic in some cases, especially if the shift change merely brings another fatigued resident.

Fatigue in hospital staff is increasingly common with more traffic in hospitals every day, but it has been proven through sleep studies that a lack of sleep is comparable to alcohol intoxication:

  • after 17 hours of sustained wakefulness, a person’s motor function would be comparable to a person with a .05 blood-alcohol level

In essence, the longer a resident is awake, the more his or her motor and cognitive function is compromised– at a rate similar to how one’s performance is adversely affected as one consumes more alcohol.  Physically and mentally exhausted residents are a potential risk in extended hospital stays, and it’s important to be aware of how fatigue affects the quality of care.

Be sure you know who is administering your care when you are a patient in a Pennsylvania hospital. It is always worthwhile to be an active part of your own treatment, and be sure to raise any concerns you have.