Sleep Deprived Doctors


How would you feel if you were about to get on a plane, and you saw the pilot with enormous dark circles under his eyes? What if he was stifling a yawn? What if he had a vacant and dull expression? What if the co-pilot looked the same way? Would you want to get on the plane?

How would you feel if you were about to get on the bus from D.C. to New York, and the driver was nodding off in his seat? Would you want to go on that four hour ride?

There are quite strict rules in place to prevent pilots and bus drivers from going long periods of time without sleep. The lives of many people are in the hands of the pilot or the driver. When you are flying at 40,000 feet or moving along the highway at 60 mph in a multi-ton vehicle, and when you are carrying dozens of passengers, the last thing you need to be is drowsy.

So if there are strict rules in place for pilots and bus drivers, why are there no rules in place for doctors? Doctors are expected to diagnose what is wrong with us, they are supposed to know how to heal our physical ailments and they are expected to write prescriptions. A mistake during any one of those processes can be dangerous to the patient. If a doctor makes a wrong diagnosis it can result in serious damage to the patient, or even death in worst case scenarios. A doctor prescribing the wrong medication can cause severe harm as well. If the medicine is ineffective, or if it reacts badly with other medication or the patient’s body chemistry, it could result in more harm.


In other words, a doctor, nurse or other medical professional has to pay a great deal of attention in order to both help you and keep from harming you. So how is he supposed to do that if he is been working for 36 hours straight?

This is actually how a lot of doctors operate in this country. To be a doctor is to be sleep deprived most of the time. It is an ingrained part of medical culture. It is also incredibly dangerous.

Shifts often last 24 hours, particularly for first year medical interns. That isn’t 24 hours where you simply have to be at the hospital. That’s 24 hours where you are constantly moving, constantly on your feet, and constantly looking after the needs of your patients. There are also doctors who work shifts of up to 36 hours, sometimes catching an intermittent hour or two of sleep in an on-call room, but often getting no sleep whatsoever.

Does anyone remember pulling an all-nighter in college, or working the night shift for a few days? Do you remember how disoriented and frazzled you were? Doctors are required to be that way on multiple days a week.

There are some reasons to make a doctors shift longer than the average workers. It is often better for the patient if he has one doctor following the course of his treatment. But there has to be a point where the lack of sleep outweighs the potential benefits of a single doctor’s care, particularly when you start getting into hour 16.

This isn’t exactly news to the medical establishment. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine claimed that sleep deprived doctors made twice as many errors as doctors who had gotten some rest. This study was published 40 years ago. Much like a man with lung cancer who continues to smoke even though he knows it’s bad for him; doctors continue to work incredibly long shifts and continue to make mistakes. But the metaphor doesn’t work completely. The smoker is hurting himself. The sleep-deprived doctors are hurting us.

Greenberg and Bederman is a Washington, D.C. medical malpractice law firm located in Silver Spring, Maryland. We are currently offering legal representation to those who have been injured by a doctor, nurse, or other medical professional. If you or a loved one in Maryland, Virginia or Washington, D.C. has been injured due to medical malpractice, contact Greenberg & Bederman for a free consultation

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