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Extended doctor shifts may increase patient risk

In 2011, doctors in training, or residents, were restricted to working shifts that were no longer than 16 hours after studies revealed that their exhaustion increased the rate at which they made dangerous mistakes. In December 2016, however, news sources reported that some physician training groups were pushing for a change that could almost double the maximum shift length. If these proposals succeed, residents in New York and other states may end up working for 28 hours at a stretch.

The doctors who stand behind such changes say that the fact that residents are limited to 16 hours often results in them having to leave patients at vital moments, and they also point to the importance of preparatory training in helping medical students become accustomed the rigors of real-world caregiving. Other physicians and consumer advocacy groups maintain that longer hours will increase the risk of problems like medical malpractice.

Anecdotal evidence supports the idea that longer hours might mitigate the problem of residents having to stop working and hand off their duties in the midst of important procedures like surgeries. On the other hand, a Harvard assessment found that first-year residents who worked in intensive care for more than 24 hours committed 36 percent more serious medical mistakes.

Changing workplace rules for doctors have direct impacts on their patients. Practitioners who succumb to fatigue and exhaustion as a result of their long working hours may take actions like administering the incorrect medications or performing the wrong surgical procedures. These events can lead to ongoing health complications that demand additional medical treatment or even threaten lives, and they may be valid grounds for hospital negligence lawsuits.

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