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Could Drowsy Doctors Lead to California Medical Malpractice?

On this blog, we routinely discuss the risks associated with drowsy driving. But what about drowsy doctoring?

Unfortunately, fatigue among doctors and nurses is a real patient safety issue. As San Diego medical malpractice attorneys, we are concerned by studies that warn that drowsy health professionals are more likely to commit medical errors than those who are well-rested.

The Link Between Fatigue and Medical Errors

Research shows that lack of sleep can lead to medical errors. A 2004 study of nurse fatigue and patient safety—the first of its kind—showed that nurses who work shifts of 12.5 hours or longer are three times more likely to make an error in patient care. Subsequent research has confirmed that longer shift length increases the risk of medical errors and close calls and is associated with decreased vigilance.

“An overwhelming number of studies keep saying the same thing – once you pass a certain point, the risk of mistakes increases significantly,” says Ann Rogers, Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, a nationally renowned sleep medicine expert with Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. “We have been slow to accept that we have physical limits and biologically we are not built to do the things we are trying to do.”

Extended duration work shifts also significantly increase fatigue and impair performance and safety. According to an article in the November 2007 Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, residents who work traditional schedules with recurrent 24-hour shifts:

  • Make 36 percent more serious preventable adverse events than individuals who work no more than 16 consecutive hours.
  • Make five times as many serious diagnostic errors.
  • Have twice as many on-the-job attentional failures at night.
  • Experience a 1.5 to 2 standard deviation deterioration in performance relative to baseline rested performance on both clinical and non-clinical tasks.
  • Report making 300 percent more fatigue-related preventable adverse events that led to a patient’s death.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Fatigue-Related Medical Errors?

Studies suggest there are several steps providers can take to lower the risk of harm. For instance, the Joint Commission recommends that organizations assess their fatigue-related risks and conduct a review of staffing and other relevant policies to verify that they address extended work shifts and hours. Since patient hand-offs are a time of high-risk – especially for fatigued staff – organizations should also evaluate hand-off processes and procedures to verify that they adequately protect patients. In addition, the Joint Commission suggests organizations create and implement a fatigue management plan that includes scientific strategies for fighting fatigue.

If you or someone you care about has suffered serious harm due to serious medical mistake, you may be entitled to compensation. For more information, please contact a San Diego medical malpractice attorney at the Law Offices of Robert Vaage for a free consultation.