Not just fatigue - stressed doctors mess up, too

Tue Sep 22, 2009 6:26pm EDT
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By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Want to know if a doctor-in-training is stressed out or tired and about to make a big mistake? Just ask.

A study published on Tuesday finds that resident doctors know when they are exhausted, upset or overwhelmed and when they are, they are far more likely to admit they made an error.

What they are admitting is that sleepiness is not the only factor. Above and beyond that is general distress and mental fatigue, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"While fatigue is important, there is this whole domain of distress beyond fatigue that also demands attention," Dr. Colin West of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who led the study, said in a telephone interview.

The findings may help point to ways to better reduce the burdens on resident doctors, known in some countries as junior doctors, and in turn prevent mistakes.

"I think this is going to have an impact on healthcare reform," West said. "We need (to put) resources into training and medicine to control work hours and maintain physician well-being."

The U.S. Institute of Medicine reported in 1999 that between 48,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year from preventable medical errors ranging from drug overdoses to infections caught in the hospital.

And doctors, unions and other experts have been clamoring to cut the hours worked by residents, who once routinely put in 100 to 120 hour work-weeks and who still are required to work at least 80 hours a week at most training hospitals.   Continued...

<p>Surgeons perform a total knee arthroplasty operation in an operating room at the Ambroise Pare hospital in Marseille, southern France, April 14, 2008. REUTERS/ Jean-Paul Pelissier</p>