The potential harms of long workweeks for physicians

The risk of medical errors increases when physicians have extended shifts or long workweeks, a study published April 12 in BMJ Medicine found.

Researchers at Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital analyzed self-reported data on work hours and safety outcomes from 4,826 U.S. medical residents between 2002 to 2007 and 2014 to 2017. Residents were in their second year of residency or higher. 

Physicians who worked more than 48 hours a week were more likely to self-report medical errors, preventable adverse events (some of which were fatal), occupational exposures and percutaneous injuries, among other concerns. 

Working 60 to 70 hours per week was associated with a more than twofold increase in the risk of medical errors and a nearly threefold jump in the risk of preventable adverse events. 

"These results indicate that exceeding 48 weekly work hours or working shifts of extended duration endangers even experienced resident physicians and their patients," researchers said. "These data suggest that regulatory bodies in the U.S. and elsewhere should consider lowering weekly work hour limits, as the European Union has done, and eliminating shifts of extended duration to protect the more than 150,000 physicians training in the U.S. and their patients."

At present, U.S. guidelines prohibit only first-year residents from working extended shifts.

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