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New Rules Seek to Limit Doctor Hours to Prevent Medical Error

In a step hailed by all concerned with patient rights and proper medical care, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has proposed new rules to guide work during the residency phase of doctor training. According to The Wall Street Journal, the changes are being fueled by research indicating that the current work hours and oversight methods for new doctors may be the leading cause of all preventable medical errors.

After graduating from medical schools, new doctors generally enter into a residency, a multi-year training period before officially entering into practice independently. This period can last anywhere from three to seven years. Residencies are notoriously rigorous, with young doctors forced to work 80 hours a week. In addition, these young medical professionals are also forced to work 24 hours straight a few days each week – those all-night shifts involve no sleep and only a few breaks.

Obviously, these strenuous work hours ultimately have ill effect on the patient care provided by these doctors. Fatigued medical residents are often harming patients with errors that could have been prevented. A 2004 study found that first year residents working overnight shifts were responsible for over half of the mistakes in treatment leading to deadly effects on patients.

To begin curbing these errors, the new guidelines would limit first year residents to no more than 16 hours of work a day. Also, supervising doctors would be required to maintain closer contact to these new residents, providing additional oversight of all decisions and ensuring that these new doctors are not making mistakes that could be prevented.

Workers in any profession may have the quality of their work affected by sleeplessness. However, in the medical context, the quality of the care has life and death consequences. Unlike other professions, many medical mistakes can never be undone. It is for that reason that our Chicago medical malpractice attorneys at Levin & Perconti applaud these efforts to ensure that the care provided to patients across the country is as responsible as possible. Time and again our attorneys have represented clients victimized by healthcare provider error caused by inexperienced medical residents. In one case, we won a $6.7 million verdict against a hospital who allowed an inexperienced resident to botch a breached delivery resulting in severe injury.

As encouraging as the rule changes may be, however, it is clear that these changes alone are insufficient to solve all of the current problems of doctor error. All residents besides those in their first year will continue to work more than 24 hours continuously. Dr. Sidney Wolfe, a patient’s rights advocate confessed that “it makes no sense at all” to recognize that working an entire day without rest is harmful to medical care, but then continue to allow some doctors to do so. While the new regulations may be a step in the right direction, many more steps need to be taken before the quality of medical care reaches the highest level possible.

If you have any suspicion that you or someone you know was harmed due to inadequate care by a medical professional, be sure to get in touch with a medical malpractice lawyer to understand how you can best vindicate your rights.