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Guidelines aimed to prevent medical errors backfire

Some Michigan residents may have heard that back in 2011 a medical board of supervision implemented new regulations to help prevent fatigued doctors in training from making medical errors. The regulations cut the hours that medical residents could work without taking breaks from 30 to 16--in the hopes of enhancing patient safety as well as improving the well-being of the doctors. Interestingly, two reports have found that the regulations have backfired.

One of the studies was performed by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School who found that shorter shifts may have actually led to an increase in medical errors. Medical errors resulting in harm to patients reportedly increased between 15 and 20 percent more among medical residents working shorter shifts compared to those who worked longer shifts, according to the study.

The shorter shifts also have not improved the rates of depression among young doctors, with about 20 percent of residents reportedly suffering from depression.

Both of the studies also revealed that although the medical residents may have been putting in fewer hours at the teaching hospitals, they are not getting more sleep.

While it is not completely clear why the decreased hours led to a decrease in patient safety, it has been suggested that this is due in part to increased risks when handing off patients during shift changes. Additionally, the reduced hours meant less time training and fewer educational opportunities.

It remains to be seen whether these regulations will now be reevaluated by The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which sets the guidelines. It is important that hospital guidelines do not have negative consequences like this. Those who are harmed by medical errors may benefit from seeking legal representation. It is sometimes possible to obtain compensation for damages with a medical malpractice claim.

Source: USA Today, "Studies: Residents make more errors on shorter shifts," Janice Lloyd, March 25, 2013

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