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Study: Sleepy surgical residents dangerously ineffective

Medical students in surgical resident programs may be too tired to function effectively while on the job, according to a new study. The report in Archives of Surgery said that student doctor fatigue can cause enough impairment to cause mistakes in judgment that lead to medical malpractice.

Researchers examined the mental "effectiveness" of sleep-deprived orthopedic residents and compared the findings to capabilities of better-rested residents. The data was collected in 2010 and last year, new student work shift rules were put in practice.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education ordered new 16-hour shift limitations for first-year residents in July 2011. Senior residents are allowed to work up to 28 straight hours. The study concluded the ACGME rules may not be strict enough to prevent deadly medical errors.

The study's participants, who averaged slightly more than five hours of sleep per day, were able to function at or above the minimum 70 percent level of mental effectiveness for 48 percent of their work shifts. The fatigue study said sleep-starved student surgeons were functioning at dangerously low levels of mental effectiveness 27 percent of the time they were on the job.

At least one-quarter of the time, sleepy student surgeons had the same mental efficiency as a person who was legally intoxicated. A 70 percent mental effectiveness rate is equivalent to the .08 alcohol impairment limit for most drivers.

The chance of medical mistakes was estimated to be 22 percent higher for surgical residents with little sleep than well-rested residents. The percentage rose to 24 percent for surgical residents on night shifts.

The journal study was based on data collected from 27 surgical residents at two Boston hospitals. Estimated error rates were projected based on information gathered, not a tally of individual mistakes. Medical observers are hoping for continued research, larger samples and more suggestions to limit the chance of medical errors caused by residents' tiredness.

Source: Fox News, "Tired surgical students may up error risks, study suggests," Reuters, May 22, 2012

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