Why This New Rule for Doctors Hurts Patients

You might want to ask your doctor about the last time they slept.

In the latest worrisome news about the length of doctor’s shifts, the organization that caps how many consecutive hours first-year doctors can spend on patient care has decided to raise the limit from 16 hours to 24.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

The change will go into effect on July 1st. According to the Washington Post, “The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education said the change will enhance patient safety because there will be fewer handoffs from doctor to doctor. It also said the longer shifts will improve the new doctors’ training by allowing them to follow their patients for more extended periods, especially in the critical hours after admission.”

It true that critical information could get lost in the shuffle the more frequently you pass patients off, so minimizing turnovers isn’t a bad idea. The new rules also require young physician’s supervisors to watch their mental and physical health more closely and to allow time off for doctor’s appointments, the WP reports. That’s important, as data shows high rates of burnout and depression among medical professionals.

What’s getting lost here is how this change will realistically impact the health and wellness of not only doctors but their patients. Will longer shifts improve burnout rates? That seems unlikely. Will a doctor be more mentally and physically ready to tackle patient-care during hour 23 of a shift instead of hour 15? Research says no — our decision-making skills and logic get worse with sleep deprivation, especially in high stakes situations. In fact someone who’s been awake for 17 to 19 hours performs tasks as though they’re tipsy, according to research.

The hour-cap change is “a dangerous step backwards,” Michael Carome, a doctor in charge of the Public Citizen’s health research group, told the WP. “We know from extensive research, multiple studies, that sleep-deprived residents are a danger to themselves, their patients and the public,” Carome said.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education’s move may be well-intentioned, but it’s misguided. Patient care won’t get better if doctors are exhausted, depressed and burned out. We’ve written before about how our doctors are held to unrealistic and potentially dangerous standards and how the problem won’t solve itself — it requires top-down action in the medical industry. It’s time we all realize that, just like everyone else, a doctor’s performance improves when they’re well rested.

Read more about the hour-cap change on the Washington Post.