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Medical residencies are notorious for their excruciatingly long shifts.  Doctors fresh out of medical schools use their residencies to gain on the job experience in their desired specialty. Although residencies allow these young doctors to develop expertise, the long work hours can take a toll on their minds and bodies. Residents practice under the supervision of licensed doctors and continue their training as physicians.

In the past, a medical resident could expect to work more than 100 hours a week, with minimal rest in between. Things changed in 2003, when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (also known as ACGME), cut down the hours to 80 weekly, although this ruling was not strictly enforced. Still, many shifts can last over a day, up to 30 hours with limited time to sleep.

A new proposal set by ACGME will cut down on mistakes and ensure that patients are safe.   Maximum shift lengths would be reduced hopefully reduce harmful medical from 24 hours to 16 hours for first year residents and to 24 hours for all other physicians. Additionally, attending physicians would be required to make patients aware that they are under the charge of a resident.  The new guidelines will require attending physicians to supervise residents more closely in an effort to improve patient safety. Still, these regulations would only affect first year residents. All other physicians would limited to 24-hour shifts.

Studies have shown that sleep-deprived residents are more prone to making medical mistakes.  A Mayo Clinic study revealed that fatigued, distressed medical residents were more likely to make preventable medical mistakes. Yet another study found that residents were three times as likely to say that they’d made an error during months when they worked one 24 hour long shift.  In 2004, a report discovered that medical residents who worked all night shifts were ultimately accountable for over half of medical errors.

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Overworked Medical Residents May Be Catching a Break

Ultimately, some medical mistakes prove fatal. One famous medical malpractice case is that of Libby Zion, an 18 year old college student who died when her overworked, fatigued medical residents prescribed her medication that reacted dangerously with her antidepressants.

Grueling shifts can compromise the health of the doctors themselves. Dr. Shannon Gulliver recently wrote a piece for the New York Times in which she detailed her own weakened immune system, a result of the long hours and high stress of her position. She developed esophagitis, while her colleagues themselves developed shingles, fungal infections, C. difficile diarrhea, and more.

While education is undoubtedly a priority during residency, maintaining the health of both doctors and patients is equally important.  As long as these regulations can cut down life threatening mistakes, I feel that cutting back these hours can be a good thing. Medical residents will still be able to gain the experience they need to practice, and after they complete their first year of residency, young doctors will only be restricted to 24 hour shifts. Ultimately, these guidelines will improve quality of care for patients and better health for doctors and patients alike.

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