A new study suggests limiting the work hours of resident physicians does not lead to patient death. In fact, mortality declined during the study period even though patients may have received fewer hours of care. It seems like common sense — if a doctor gets proper rest, the patient reaps the benefit. But preventable medical error is never a simple issue.

Over the years, our firm has represented many clients injured through medical malpractice by errors that were preventable. A well-regarded study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimated preventable medical errors took the lives of 98,000 Americans each year. And that was in 1999.

To address avoidable errors made by resident physicians, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) changed the work hour limits for doctors-in-training in 2003 and again in 2011. Researchers at The University of Pennsylvania conducted a study comparing data from before and after the change in rules.

  • Doctor fatigue is only one factor in preventable medical error. Opponents of the rule change argued that an increase in the number of doctors treating a patient would result in an increase in patient death. Frequent changes in treating physicians can lead to loss of critical information and treatment discontinuity.
  • Researchers analyzed data from 14 million Medicare patients treated for heart attack, surgery, gastrointestinal distress or heart failure. While the number of patient deaths did not change remarkably from 2003 to 2006, patient survival improved in 2007 and 2008, the last two years of the study.
  • The authors point out the study does not prove fewer hours worked by resident physicians improved survival rates. The results do suggest that doctors changing shifts more frequently did not increase patient deaths.

Many medical errors go unnoticed. But some injure and kill. If you or a loved one is harmed by medical error, seek legal advice from an experienced malpractice lawyer.

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