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Is your doctor too tired to be treating you?

When you land in the emergency room, the first question on your mind probably isn't, "How tired is the doctor treating me?" But it's a question that could be critical to your health.

The resident physicians that staff many emergency rooms are supposed to follow limits on how long they can work, but the reality is that sleep-deprived doctors are the norm in a culture that rewards those who work marathon sessions.

Even though it's well-documented that sleep-deprivation causes negative effects on cognition, memory, fine motor skills, moods and reaction times, the standard for physicians used to be a 100-hour workweek. Many seasoned doctors defended this as a sort of "trial by fire" that prepared doctors for clinical practice.

Attempts to reform the culture of sleeplessness seem to have fallen short of effectiveness—probably because the doctors themselves are hiding how long they're working. Interns are now legally restricted to a paltry 16-hour workday and an 80-hour workweek. More senior residents are allowed to work 24-hour shifts but are still limited to 80-hour workweeks.

Yet, interns and residents say that they're often pressured into working longer and under-reporting their hours so that the residency program doesn't get hit with a work-hour violation.

Some of the pressure is internal—the doctor feels personally responsible for seeing every patient through to the end of his or her care. Some of the pressure is external, coming from senior staff and authority figures that encourage young doctors to tough it out, no matter how tired they are.

But tired doctors are dangerous doctors—it's already been proven that those on 30-hour shifts were 36 percent more likely to make serious errors than those on 16-hour shifts, including things like giving patients a drug to which they have a known allergy.

The reality is that you have no ideas if the doctor treating you is in his or her first hour of the day or twentieth hour of the day, but you're expected to trust his or her decisions equally at both times, even though that trust gets further and further misplaced the more tired the doctor becomes.

If you're the victim of a doctor's error, it's important to question how long that doctor had been on shift when you were treated. The quality of your care may have been compromised from the start. Seek legal advice for more information on your rights to compensation.

Source: RawStory US, "Are your doctors lying about how long they worked today?," Christopher Lee Bennett, Feb. 01, 2017

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