The role of sleep deprivation in medical malpractice

After listening to some fascinating lectures about sleep over the past few years, I’ve continued with leisure reading on this important subject.

In many disciplines, having a lack of sleep is worn as a badge of honor. As a former hospital administrator, I know that some surgeons and doctors go so far as to brag about how well they function with little to no sleep.

At academic teaching hospitals, recent medical school graduates who are continuing their clinical training are put through the ringers of sleep deprivation. It seems that medical school and residency directors have the attitude of “I went without sleep during my residency and it’s fine for today’s residents to do so as well.”

The truth, though, is that it’s at all not fine.

Sleep researchers have found that they can objectively prove cognitive or thinking deficits in people who get less than seven hours of sleep in one night. Think about that. This is simply incredible.

Now let’s think about in terms of a health care environment. Overworked attending physicians, residents, fellows, and nurses make more mistakes and don’t achieve their peak performance.

A recent article in The New York Times highlighted some findings in an article entitled “Medical Errors May Increase Around Daylight Saving Time in the Spring.”

The headline gives it away. Researchers have found that medical and nursing human errors increase by close to 20% on the day after Daylight Saving Time. Just one hour of less sleep on one night leads to more human errors in hospitals, predominantly in medications, including administering the wrong medication or dose.

The researchers in this study linked it to that one hour deficit after finding that the human error rate in the weeks preceding and following the fall return to standard time.

Other sleep research, though, has shown just how real the sleep deficit effect is:

• Federal judges sentence more harshly on the Monday after Daylight Saving Time.

• There’s around a 20% increase in motor vehicle accidents on the Monday after Daylight Saving Time.

• There’s around a 20% increase in the number of strokes and heart attacks on the Monday after Daylight Saving Time.

• Federal judges sentence less harshly on the Monday after the return to standard time.

• There’s around a 20% decrease in motor vehicle accidents on the Monday after the return to standard time.

• There’s around a 20% decrease in the number of strokes and heart attacks on the Monday after the return to standard time.

I think we can all realize that exhaustion is not fine. It makes it harder for us to make good decisions and function effectively. In hospital, nursing facility, rehabilitation center, and other health care settings, well slept doctors and nurses perform better—and are safer for patients—than their sleep-deprived colleagues.

While it’s up to medical schools, residency and fellow programs, and hospitals to lead by introducing humane work hours for physicians and nurses, there are still some things that we as patients, families, and friends can do with this information.

In my experience in investigating and handling medical malpractice cases, a lack of sleep can lead to physician mistakes in discharge decisions. Although this is difficult to prove in a lawsuit, I am firmly convinced from client conversations that some resident physicians have missed, for example, clear signs and symptoms of stroke, because they were sleep deprived and had been working 24 hours straight. Sadly, the patient gets sent home and pays the consequences of misdiagnosis.

If you’re in a health care setting and have concerns about a physician or nursing decision and questions about provider sleep or exhaustion, you have the right to ask for a second opinion. Politely ask to speak to the nursing supervisor. Ask to be evaluated by another attending physician. A second opinion never hurts!

If you’ve been seriously injured because of poor hospital, medical, or nursing care in Texas, then contact an experienced, top-rated Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer to discuss your potential case.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.