Residency program hours do not have to follow federal regulations. This means residents can end up working long hours, which can lead to tired young doctors caring for patients.
Several years back, in an effort to reduce the number of medical errors made by tired residents, the total numbers of hours allowed to work in a shift was reduced. However, two recent studies point to the fact that this reduction in hours actually had a negative effect and led to an increase in medical errors.
Prior to 2011, medical residents were allowed to work up to 30 hours straight without taking a break. In 2011, the shift was shortened to no more than 16 hours. By making this change the hope was that patients would be better protected against medical errors made by resident doctors who had been working a long shift on little sleep.
However, the opposite ended up ringing true with the percentage of medical errors increasing with the change from 15 percent to 20 percent.
When looking at why this change would lead to an increase in medical errors, the president of the American Medical Student Association points to the fact that while rules governing hours changed, extra support to take care of clinical work was most likely not provided. Essentially, this means there is a good chance residents are being required to do the same amount of work, only in less time.
Outside of having to get the same amount of work done during a shorter shift, a 16-hour shift also means more patient handoffs. This is when a patient is transferred from one doctor to another. This transfer carries with it an increase in patient safety risks.
Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that just because the shift hours changed, it does not mean the young doctors are taking the time to get more sleep. Without more sleep, this means residents are still tired when seeing patients.