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New Study Suggests That Sleep Deprivation Promotes Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

A recent study was conducted by Rice University and Baylor University to determine how a lack of sleep among hospital patients can lead to more claims of medical malpractice. The full report appears in JAMA Surgery. Researchers found that many hospital patients experience sleep deprivation. This often occurs from interruptions of sleep when staff administers medication, performs testing, and other needed treatment.

Study Details

The research involved 44 adult patients that were in good health and slept at least seven hours per night regularly. The patients were presented with eight scenarios involving a medical error, such as mistakes relating to anesthesia or surgery. The errors were then rated according to various factors such as the quality of medical care, the severity of the error, and what they would deem as sufficient financial compensation for the mistake. The participants were then separated into two groups. One group resumed their normal sleep habits, while the others slept no more than six hours for a period of four nights before repeating the medical error assessment.

Findings Overview

The findings of the study showed that those who were deprived of sleep were roughly four times more likely to feel that those who made medical errors should be punished. These individuals felt that the injured patient should be able to receive the maximum amount of financial compensation to atone for the mistake. Abby Corrington, a graduate student at Rice University, explained that this data would be useful for hospital management and medical professionals to understand. Creating a hospital environment that allows patients to maintain a normal night of sleep without interruptions can prevent costly legal actions.

Shift Workers

Sleep deprivation among hospital staff can also lead to a greater likelihood of medical errors and potential liability. Those hospital workers who staff the night shift generally have less sleep than those who work a daytime schedule. Individuals who sleep during daytime hours have shorter durations of sleep and poorer quality sleep. This is partially attributed to the body’s natural circadian rhythms. When a person is awake for 17 consecutive hours their cognitive performance and motor skills diminish. These individuals may perform at a level roughly equivalent to those that consumed two alcoholic beverages and have a .05% blood alcohol level.

Importance of Sleep

Sleep is a function that involves a circadian rhythm that is impacted by daylight. Those with insufficient hours of sleep or poor quality sleep experience much more fatigue. Those who work longer hours or perform intense work also may feel increasingly fatigued. High levels of fatigue results in reduced response time, motivation, and impaired cognition. The amount of sleep that our bodies require varies from person to person. Some of the facts that are associated with sleep are as follows:

  • Fatigue may be a “latent hazard” in a health care setting that can lead to errors
  • The majority of adults perform best when they have between 7.5 and 8.5 hours of sleep each night
  • Performance generally begins to decline after individuals have been awake for roughly 12 hours
  • There are some people who function normally on only five hours of sleep

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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