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Poll asks: Should cap on medical intern work hours be lifted?

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Washington – Should first-year medical residents be allowed to work shifts longer than 16 hours? The vast majority of respondents to a recent poll say “no.”

Watchdog group Public Citizen recently polled 500 people about the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education’s expected proposal to eliminate the 16-hour shift limit for first-year medical residents. Eighty-six percent of the respondents oppose elimination of the limit, which was implemented by ACGME in 2011 for first-year interns only. Other residents may work up to 28 hours without sleep.

The poll results, as well as comments both supporting and opposing the proposal, are detailed in Public Citizen’s new report, Bipartisan Consensus: The Public Wants Well-Rested Medical Residents to Help Ensure Safe Patient Care. Opponents of shorter shifts believe they may compromise resident education and training, and could potentially contribute to medical errors stemming from a greater number of transitions in doctor care. Those advocating shorter shifts, however, cite evidence showing residents who work longer hours are more likely to experience impaired performance from mental and physical fatigue and are at greater risk of unintentional self-injury.

Other findings:

  • 86 percent of respondents would likely feel anxious upon learning a doctor had been on duty for more than 16 hours without sleeping; 84 percent would likely want to be treated by a different doctor.
  • 77 percent of respondents believe hospital patients should be informed if a resident treating them has been working more than 16 hours without sleep.
  • 84 percent would want to be informed upon admittance to an experimental hospital allowing first-year residents to work shifts of 28 hours or more.

“The public’s apprehension about resident shifts longer than 16 hours comports with the long-standing evidence on the risks of long resident work shifts for both the residents and their patients,” Dr. Michael Carome, health research group director for Public Citizen, said in a Sept. 13 press release. “Medical residents are not superhuman and, when sleep-deprived, put themselves, their patients and others in harm’s way.”

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