Fatigued drivers cause accidents. In response to this obvious fact, we limit bus and taxi drivers to a maximum of 10 hours of driving after 8 consecutive hours off duty. Yet when it comes to physicians, the current standard is significant more lax; first-year residents are restricted to 16-hour shifts! That already is nuts. I often teach a night class, 7:20-10 pm and I always try to teach the more difficult material early because by 9pm I am not at the top of my game. Needless to say, medical residents are far more stressed and fatigued than teachers. Moreover, while first year residents can work up to 16 hours, second year residents can work up to 24 hours straight and even up to 30! Isn’t it amazing how one year of residency can teach physicians how to function without sleep?
The current standards, which strike me as absurdly low, are actually due to restrictions put in place in 2003 and 2011–restrictions which are now being lifted. The new plan is to allow longer hours for first year residents:
Rookie doctors can work up to 24 hours straight under new work limits taking effect this summer — a move supporters say will enhance training and foes maintain will do just the opposite.A Chicago-based group that establishes work standards for U.S. medical school graduates has voted to eliminate a 16-hour cap for first-year residents. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education announced the move Friday as part of revisions that include reinstating the longer limit for rookies — the same maximum allowed for advanced residents.
An 80-hour per week limit for residents at all levels remains in place under the new rules.
The main argument in favor of long hours is that the 2003 and 2011 restrictions do not seem to have greatly improved patient safety. That is surprising but the micro and experiential evidence that fatigue makes for mistakes is so strong that the lesson to be drawn isn’t that longer hours don’t lead to mistakes–the lesson is either that the restrictions were routinely ignored (as the National Academy of Science study found), that the studies done to date are misleading for a statistical or design reason or that there is another constraint in the system that needs to be examined. One possibility for another constraint is that handoffs of patients between physicians aren’t handled well. But that means that poor handoffs are killing as many people as fatigue!
In no other field do we tolerate error as much as we do in medical care. Why does the government regulate driving hours more than medical hours? It’s not just the government. It’s amazing that in a society where McDonald’s can be sued for making people fat that the tort system hasn’t shut down absurdly long residency hours (there have been a few cases). Medical care is a peculiar field (cue Robin Hanson).
Aside from Hanson-type factors, a key factor that explains what is going on is that residents are a huge profit source for the hospitals. Much like student athletes, residents are underpaid. As a result, hospitals want to use residents as much as possible so they lobby for longer hours even at the expense of patient safety.