Health Team

Study: More Sleep for Doctors Doesn't Increase Patient Deaths

Well-rested resident doctors, not increased patient deaths, have been the result of new limits on the hours residents work, according to two studies.

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Cutting the hours that resident doctors work has not increased patient deaths, and two recent studies suggest the reason why might be fairly simple: Residents are getting more sleep.

In 2003, new regulations cut the number of hours that resident doctors could work each week from 120 to 80. Some feared the reduced work hours might increase patient deaths, since more residents would treat a single patient, leading to the possibility of  miscommunication among residents.

Residents are newly licensed physicians who are receiving in-depth training in a specific branch of medicine.

Two recent studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined death rates after the reduced work hours began. Researchers reviewed data on more than 8 million Medicare patients and more than 300,000 Veteran Affairs patients.

"What we found was that there was no catastrophe. There was not an increased number of deaths," said study co-author Dr. Jeffrey Silber, with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Researchers found that more well-rested residents performed better.

"As a patient, you should be glad that the residents who are caring for you are probably better rested, because on average, they're working fewer hours than they used to work before work hours were regulated," said study lead author Dr. Kevin Volpp, with the Philadelphia Veteran Affairs Medical Center.

VA patients actually experienced a decrease in their death rate, according to the studies. Volpp attributed that drop to a new electronic health-records system, which provides better information for different doctors treating the same patient.

Volpp urged more refinement of rules regarding residents' work schedules and the care they provide.

"We need to continue working to try to develop better models of work-hour regulation that may lead to further improvements in outcomes," he said.

Residents agreed that lighter work schedules could improve patient care.

"Really, the goal should be to try to decrease the amount of fatigue and to provide safe options, so we can continue to take good care of our patients," resident Dr. Meredith Pugh said.