Sleepy Surgeons Cause More Errors Than Well-Rested Docs

Cheryl Clark , October 14, 2009

The key was in the amount of sleep they got between surgeries, factoring in the time it takes after a surgical procedure to wash up, get dressed, drive home, relax and get to sleep, and then drive back to the hospital to begin a new surgical day.

The authors wrote that because of concerns about their professional development, "attending physicians may be less likely to acknowledge the potentially harmful effects of extended work shifts than trainees. Some attending physicians may also be less inclined than residents to postpone electively scheduled surgical procedures even when they are aware of the possibility of decreased alertness from insufficient overnight sleep.

Rothschild suggested hospitals and surgeons look at five strategies to reduce the times when surgeons go back into the operating room after fewer than six hours sleep.

  • If possible, avoid scheduling elective procedures following overnight on-call responsibilities
  • Use hospital-based physicians to cover overnight emergencies
  • Consider cancelling or postponing elective procedures when the risks are high or when colleagues feel the risks are high
  • Use teamwork, including backups, to assist or relieve fatigued physicians
  • Consider using caffeine if the surgeon must perform lifesaving procedures

Cheryl Clark is a senior editor and California correspondent for HealthLeaders Media Online. She can be reached at

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