Tired Doctors Make Serious Errors

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A major contributor to serious medical errors is never as present as it is now, during the current COVID-19 pandemic: a lack of sleep causing tired doctors.  But a new study reinforces just how dangerous it was for patients pre-coronavirus, and why it surely will remain once the pandemic is finally over.

Medical errors happen more often than most people might assume.  Not only do they happen often, but they also can inflict needless harm to patients and their families.  Johns Hopkins University researched serious medical errors and found they kill about 250,000 people each year in this country.

Common Types of Serious Medical Errors

The most common, serious mistakes made during medical care include:

  • Medication errors – such as providing the medication in the wrong dosage
  • Misdiagnosis – wrong, missed or delayed diagnosis of a serious health condition
  • Surgical errors – surgical site infections, wrong site or wrong patient surgery

There are many different reasons why medical errors occur in hospitals, such as miscommunication, lack of proper training, and unclean or improperly used medical devices.

A study published in December online on JAMA Network Open highlights another cause of serious medical errors – dangerously fatigued doctors -  which is now more worrisome than ever.

COVID-19 has nurses and doctors pushed to their physical and emotional limits. Reported staffing shortages and the sheer number of seriously ill patients have required doctors and nurses to work long hours; longer than most likely have ever had to endure.

Day after day it has taken its toll, leaving medical workers exhausted.

The study (“Assessment of Physician Sleep and Wellness, Burnout, and Clinically Significant Medical Errors”), conducted well before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, finds that exhausted doctors are more likely to make medical errors.

The research involved some 11,400 doctors – attending physicians and physicians in training - and was held between 2016 and 2018. Researchers measured the physicians’ level of sleep deprivation as well as professional burnout using scientifically recognized measures.

Sleep-Deprived Doctors Who Make Mistakes That Harm Patients

The sleep deprivation scale went from 8 – negligible sleep-related impairment – all the way to 40 – a very high level of fatigue issues.

In terms of physician burnout, a variety of factors were combined to develop a scale that went from 0 to 10. A score of 3.325 or greater indicated high to very high levels of professional burnout suffered by physicians.

The study included a dozen medical specialties. Doctors in different specialties reported differing amounts of sleeplessness:

  • Surgeons – an almost 16 average sleep-related impairment score
  • Emergency room physicians – a 19 average sleep-related impairment score
  • Anesthesiology – about 18 average sleep-related impairment score

The trainees had a higher score in each of the 12 medical specialty categories than attending physicians. The average physician trainees’ sleep-related impairment scale was 20.7, while their more experienced counterparts was 16.7.

The doctors were asked to report medical errors over the two-year period. Only medical errors that resulted in patient harm were tallied.

In total, 7,762 of the doctors reported making medical errors. That’s about 68% of the doctors in the study.

After analyzing all the data the researchers determined that just a moderate amount of sleep-loss raised the risk of doctors making serious medical errors by 53%.

And the study found that the trainees – who had less sleep - had nearly 120% greater chances of making a serious medical error than attending physicians.

Emotional burnout, tied to a lack of sleep, also was found to have a cause-and-effect relationship with serious medical errors.  Every 1 point increase in the 1 to 10 burnout scale led to a 14% increase in the odds for a medical mistake, according to the researchers.

Again, all of this was documented before the coronavirus hit. Serious medical errors made by sleep-deprived doctors and doctors experiencing emotional burnout were a reality prior to the added stresses of COVID-19.

Hospital administrators and department heads always should identify dangerously tired or emotionally burned out doctors and nurses and get them help before they make mistakes that gravely hurt their patients.

If you believe you were seriously harmed due to a mistake in medical care or lost a loved one to what you suspect to be an error in treatment, contact a medical malpractice lawyer about investigating what went wrong and why.

The choice of a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely on advertisements.

Authored by Gray Ritter Graham, posted in Articles December 21, 2020

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