Duty hours restrictions may be doing more harm than good

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Do physicians in training take better care of patients or perform better on their exams when their work hours are restricted?  Two recent studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggest that the answer is no.  In one, patients of surgery residents showed no difference in morality or postoperative outcomes after duty hour restrictions were implemented.  Their test scores did not improve either.  In the other, hospitalized Medicare patients being cared for by physicians working shorter hours experienced no improvement in mortality or readmission rates.

U.S. resident duty hour restrictions were born in 2003, when the ACGME, the organization that accredits medical residency programs, capped the work week at 80 hours.  It also mandated that residents have 10 hours off between duty periods and a 24-hour limit on continuous duty, with 1 day in 7 free from patient care.  In 2011, the organization revised its policy, further restricting the total number of continuous duty hours for physicians in the first year of training to 16.

How could well-intentioned attempts to ensure that hardworking young physicians get sufficient rest fail to benefit patients?  To begin with, simply restricting duty hours does not guarantee that residents will use their extra off-duty time to sleep.  They might, for example, use it to study, exercise, or socialize.  It is also possible that the outcomes being assessed by these studies are influenced by so many factors that merely changing duty hours is insufficient to cause a change.  Yet if such changes do not benefit patients, how strong is the case for their implementation?

Some educators worry that duty hours restrictions are undermining the quality of medical education.  For example, a survey of surgery program directors published last year showed that 21 percent believe that residency graduates are unprepared for the operating room, 30 percent believe they cannot independently remove a gallbladder, and 68 percent believe they cannot perform a major procedure unsupervised for more than 30 minutes.  Another survey showed that 38 percent of residents themselves lack confidence in their preparation even after five years of training.

Part of the problem may lie in the fact that the duty hours restrictions have reduced the number of cases such residents can learn from.  For example, one study of the caseloads of surgery residents found that the implementation of duty hour restrictions was associated with a 26 percent reduction in cases per resident.  Moreover, the complexity of operating room cases in which residents participated declined even more, 32 percent.  To compensate for such reductions, some critics have argued that if duty hours restrictions remain in place, the length of surgery residency will need to be increased from the current 5 to 6 or even 7 years.

But the problems with attempts to reduce duty hours go deeper still.  When residents spend less time in the hospital, the number of patient “handoffs” that need to occur between residents increases.   A resident, who might once have cared for a patient for 24 consecutive hours now, needs to hand the patient off to a colleague at 16 hours.  It is well documented that every time a patient’s care is transferred from one health professional to another, errors in communication tend to occur.  Studies suggest that such error rates can be reduced, but not eliminated.

An associated problem is the fact that residents operating under duty hours restrictions have less time to get to know their patients.  In addition to creating opportunities for error, this also has negative implications for the quality of relationships that young physicians develop with their patients.  Confidence and trust are built in part on familiarity, which the duty hours restrictions tend to reduce.  As a result, many young physicians may expect less from relationships with patients, and these diminished expectations may remain with them throughout their careers.

The intent behind duty hours restrictions is a noble one.  As sleeplessness increases, it takes a toll on mental performance, including reaction time and the ability to memorize new information.  But sleeplessness is but one factor in the performance equation, and it may be counterbalanced by other equally or even more important factors, such as the importance of the task at hand.  When a patient’s health or even life is on the line, it is possible that many young physicians can compensate for lack of rest.

Another drawback of the duty hours restrictions is psychological, perhaps even cultural.  A whole generation of physicians in training is being told, directly or indirectly, that their education is not as rigorous as their teachers’.  They do work as hard and are not being tested to the same degree as those who trained before them.  As a result, many complete their training questioning whether they have given less of themselves than they needed to.

Without doubt, the culture of hard work and sacrifice can be taken too far.  A colleague recently shared with me this story.  When he was an intern, he was taking call every third night, admitting at least eight patients each call shift, and getting too little sleep.  One morning while on rounds with his chief resident he stopped and said, “I don’t think I can keep doing this.  It is dangerous for the patients.”  The chief showed absolutely no sympathy, instead responded dismissively, “Just suck it up and carry on.”

Duty hours restrictions represent an attempt to deal with a genuine problem, a dominant culture in medicine that says, “If you can’t do this, you are weak.”  Yet they are problematic because they represent a one-size-fits-all solution.  In many cases, a more tailor-made approach is called for.  It makes no more sense to treat all residents in all medical fields identically than it would to treat all patients as if they were cut from the same mold.

Before we impose blanket restrictions on duty hours for every training program and resident in the country, we should turn our attention to more pressing matters.  First, we should try to foster a culture in which young physicians can admit they need help without fear of reprisal.  Second, we should ensure that the work residents are being asked to do is truly educational and important.  And third, we should put more trust in the ability of program directors and their residents to discern for themselves the amount of work they can handle.

Richard Gunderman is Chancellor’s Professor, Schools of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University, Indianapolis, IN.  This article originally appeared in The Health Care Blog and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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