medical resident sleeping

Days Off, Safe Transport Recommended to Reduce Residents' Fatigue

A new Institute of Medicine report recommends several ways to reduce fatigue among medical residents, saying their lack of sleep is hurting their performance and contributing to errors in patient care. The report resulted from a 15-month study and was funded by the Department of Health & Human Services' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The study examined the relationship between residents' work schedules, their performance, and the quality of care they provide. "The study confirms that scientific evidence shows acute and chronically fatigued residents are more likely to make mistakes," AHRQ noted.

There is an existing 80-hours-per-week limit on work hours, but the report says more must be done, including protected sleep periods for residents. (The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education allows residents to work a maximum 30-hour shift, during which they may treat patients for 24 hours and engage in training or transition activities for the other six hours. IOM recommends instead requiring residents who complete a 30-hour shift to treat patients for no more than 16 hours, and then they must have a five-hour protected sleep period between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.)

"The Institute of Medicine study provides the clear evidence to prove what we have long believed is true: Fatigue increases the chance for human error," said AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy. "Most importantly, this report provides solid recommendations that can improve patient safety, as well as increase the quality of the resident training experience."

Other recommendations in the "Resident Duty Hours: Enhancing Sleep, Supervision, and Safety" report include:

  • Increased supervision of work hours. Lack of adherence to limits is common and often underreported. The IOM report recommends periodic independent reviews and strengthened protections for residents and others who report a lack of adherence to current work hour restrictions.
  • Stronger moonlighting restrictions. Current ACGME rules count only internal moonlighting (additional paid health care work at the same health care facility) against the 80-hour weekly limit. IOM recommends internal and external moonlighting count against the weekly limit "because moonlighting outside residency training affects strategically designed periods for rest and sleep, which could reduce residents' readiness for their primary duties."
  • Guaranteed days off to permit adequate recovery after working long shifts. The IOM committee said residents should receive a 24-hour break from duty each week, with one 48-hour break per month, for a total of five days off per month.
  • Reasonable on-call periods. The IOM committee said residents should be on call in the hospital no more than every third night.
  • Safe transportation provided by hospitals to residents who are too fatigued to drive home. AHRQ-funded research shows that residents more than double their risk of driving accidents when they drive home after working extended shifts.
  • Increased resident training on better communication during handovers. Handovers, when clinicians transition care responsibility to other health care providers, are likely to increase with shorter resident shifts. In some cases, multiple handovers could add to the risk for adverse events unless a structured team approach is used.
  • Increased involvement of residents in patient safety activities and adverse event reporting. IOM committee members suggest such involvement could greatly increase the resident's educational experience.

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