Fatigue Wears at Doctors' Work Performance Too

Author: Patrick Malone
Published: November 10, 2010 at 7:17 am

The above headline is not exactly shocking, so the real news may be why the issue of how long work days can cause doctors to make errors is so rarely studied.

For nurses and residents (doctors in training), plenty of studies have found that when work days stretch beyond twelve hours, more mistakes are made, and patients become vulnerable to malpractice and even smaller errors.

But a new study of radiologists is one of the first to examine the effect of long work days on the performance of attending level physicians.

The researchers gave a set of bone X-rays to radiologists at the beginning of their work day, and again at the end. Then they measured their accuracy at finding fractures. By the end of the day, the radiologists were making around one in twenty more errors — both missing fractures and seeing ones that weren't there — than at the start of the day. It's a small but significant difference.

The study in the radiology journal concluded: "After a day of clinical reading, radiologists have reduced ability to focus, increased symptoms of fatigue and oculomotor strain, and reduced ability to detect fractures."

Dr. Bob Wachter, a UCSF patient safety guru, has a thoughtful piece on this in his own blog, which he titled: Tugging on Superman's Cape. Read it here.

Dr. Wachter riffed off a story he heard about legendary heart surgeon Michael Debakey performing sixteen open heart surgeries in a single day, even in his eighties. While the Baylor staffer who told Wachter this story was awestruck at Debakey's stamina, Wachter wondered what it would be like to be patient No. 16.

For the rest of us, there's a lesson when facing elective surgery. Surgeons love to stack up patients back to back and operate from the early morning to late in the day. If we have any choice, we should opt for a place early in the queue. Why tempt the gods of fatigue?


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Article Author: Patrick Malone

Patrick Malone is a leading patient safety advocate and attorney who represents seriously injured people in medical malpractice lawsuits, product liability cases and other types of lawsuits. He appeared on the Today Show to discuss his book for …

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