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Physician Sleep Deprivation

The effects of sleep deprivation on the human body can be catastrophic. A report released by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence demonstrated that the CIA used sleep deprivation as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Sleep deprivation can have significant impacts on mental as well as physical health, which would explain why it might be implemented in an attempt to interrogate individuals. We often hear references to the fact that, when operating an automobile, sleep deprivation can be compared to intoxication. This has been a special concern when dealing with long-distance truck drivers. The effects of sleep deprivation on long-haul truckers have been well-documented and have lead to the enactment of federal laws governing driving time, rest breaks.

The physical effects of sleep deprivation can include lack of concentration, attention deficits, delayed reaction time, and lack of coordination. It makes sense that reducing sleep deprivation in truck drivers is an area worthy of intervention as guidelines can help keep the public safe. But what happens when other professionals come to work sleep-deprived? Today we are looking at the effects of sleep deprivation and performance among physicians.

Last week, we discussed a recent report that demonstrated troubling findings related to physician burnout. The majority of physicians practicing in the United States today will experience burnout at some point (most often early in their careers), and this can have serious impacts on their patients; burnout physicians are more likely to report making a medical error. The contributing factors to physician burnout according to the study included long shifts and high volume of on-call hours required, among others.

These shifts and on-call hours have other effects on physicians. According to a study conducted by Ball State published this week, which involved researchers analyzing sleep data from the National Health Interview Survey, the healthcare support industry (such as doctors and nurses) ranked among the top industries in which employees report being sleep deprived. Long hours can lead to reduced ability to get adequate sleep, and high volumes of mandatory on-call hours can mean that the sleep which a physician does get will be interrupted. This means that the body is not able to undergo the uninterrupted processes it normally does during sleep, which serve to refresh many critical biological processes, including several related to cognition.

Sleep-deprived doctors are more prone to make a variety of mistakes. Several studies have been conducted on sleep deprivation and physician performance. One study found that higher rates of surgical complications begin to occur when a surgeon has had less than six hours of sleep. 

The proposed solution to fixing the issue of sleep deprivation among physicians is generally systematic and involves measures such as placing restrictions on physician’s schedules and instituting mandatory sleep breaks.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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