Despite Intern’s Shorter Work Hours, Medical Errors Continue to Grow

It has long-been thought that the best way for first-year medical residents, or interns, to learn how to become a doctor is to work long hours. New research indicates that these stressful working conditions may actually lead to an increased number of medical errors.

For years, interns toiled in teaching hospitals, facing shifts that spanned days without any real time off and very little sleep. It was thought that throwing them into the fire, so to speak, was the ideal method for doctors-in-training to acquire the required skills following medical school and to manage the fatigue that comes with the profession.

However, over time, concerns grew over the toil it took on interns and potentially their patients. In 2003, the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education issued new regulations, cutting back a resident’s work schedule to no more than 80 hours per week, with no single shift lasting longer than 30 hours. Following several studies that showed an overwhelming majority of interns – as high as 87 percent – was actually working beyond these limits, the organization implemented further restrictions. As of July 2011, no intern can work longer than a 16-hour shift.

But those shorter shifts still may not be enough to guard against patient harm.

Almost a Quarter of Interns Studied Reported Making a Serious Medical Error

The medical publication, JAMA Internal Medicine, recently published two studies that indicate medical errors are growing despite interns’ shorter work weeks. One study included over 2,300 interns between 2009 and 2011. The percentage of interns in this study who reported making a serious medical error grew over that time, from 19.9 percent to 23.3 percent.

The studies found that the interns were doing the same amount of work but in a shorter time frame. And the shorter shifts meant that patients were handed off more times between doctors. These hand-offs have been shown to be a considerable cause for medical errors.

The causes of medical malpractice are typically challenging to untangle. Many factors, including fatigue, often play key roles. Victims of medical errors, therefore, are best served by experienced attorneys who conduct extensive investigations to pinpoint who is responsible for inflicting serious, even fatal, harm.