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Maybe an exhausted doctor isn't so bad after all

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 4, 2013 11:21 AM

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Young doctors keep grueling schedules, with shifts in the past running as along as a full day or more. The hours aren't great for doctors' mental health, and they can be downright scary from a patient's point of view: Life and death decisions would seem to be better made with a little more sleep.

But a new study out of the University of Michigan shows that reducing doctors' hours doesn't actually improve patient care--and, in fact, it may make it worse.

The study, which was reported in JAMA Internal Medicine, compared the performance of 2,300 doctors both before and after a 2011 rule change that lowered the number of consecutive hours doctors can work from 24 to 16. The year after the work-reduction, doctors actually made 15-20 percent more medical errors. How could that be?

The researchers found that while doctors are now logging fewer hours, they are still being asked to do the same amount of work as before, leading to rushed and error-prone working conditions. On top of that, shorter shifts increase the number of patient hand-offs, which increases the potential for communication errors between doctors.

So what does this mean for you, next time you find yourself committed to a hospital bed? Among other things, instead of hoping for a fresh internist, you might be better off offering the one you do have a Mountain Dew.

H/T Eureka Alert.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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