Friday, May 22, 2009

Indentured Servitude

"Back in my day..." As I am at year nine post-residency, perhaps the work shifts that we were forced to absorb do not seem quite as brutal. Perhaps not. A few years ago, ACGME-- the accrediting body for medical residency-- (amidst threats of class action lawsuits) put out recommendations regarding residents weekly work hours. After recommendations from the Institute of Medicine's report on resident duty hours, ACGME is considering further recommendations, namely to a limit of a sixteen hour work day. The Rand Corporation has published a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, to warn the public that this will be and expensive change: to the tune of an estimated $1.6 Billion per year. Here's a snippet of the coverage from HealthDay:

For years, legislators and patient advocates have called for less grueling hours for medical residents to reduce the chances of medical errors.

Now, new research shows that allowing doctors-in-training to work fewer hours and take longer naps during their shifts won't come cheap -- it will cost the nation's teaching hospitals an estimated $1.6 billion a year.

And there are no guarantees that shortening the shifts of medical residents will improve patient safety, according to the study in the May 21 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Some studies have shown that less-fatigued residents make fewer errors, while other research suggests that more frequent patient hand-offs, which would come as a result of shorter shifts, could actually mean more errors.

Doctors whose shifts have ended may have to leave patients at a critical time, and new doctors who come on duty may not be familiar with the patient, explained Dr. Kenneth Polonsky, chairman of the department of medicine at Washington University and co-author of an accompanying editorial.

"When you make physicians work shorter shifts, there is a trade-off," Polonsky said. "The care becomes discontinuous. That's what we're worried about."

The hours of medical residents are legendary. Until recently, residents often worked 120 hours a week and shifts of up to 40 hours with little more than catnaps, said study author Dr. Teryl Nuckols, an assistant professor of medicine at University of California, Los Angeles and health services researcher at the RAND Corporation.

That began to change in 2003, when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) established rules for the nation's 1,200-plus teaching hospitals that limited residents to an 80-hour workweek, 30-hour shifts and lightened workloads.

But those rules are widely flouted, according to surveys of medical residents cited in this latest study.

In December, the influential Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report calling for greater adherence to the guidelines, increased supervision of residents, more attention to patient hand-offs and even shorter shifts. Among the most significant recommendations: shifts no longer than 16 hours or as long as 30 hours if residents were given five hours of protected nap time.

The IOM, however, can only make recommendations. It's up to the ACGME to enact the rules, which it has so far not done.

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Some Thoughts:

1. The numbers are a bit curious. The suggestion is to limit the consecutive work hours only. An 80 hour work week would not change.

2. Dr. Polonsky appears to have concerns that there would be less continuity with handing off patients after 16 hour shifts instead of 24 hour ones. Hand offs usually occur to the night shift, with on call teams working up to 24 hour shifts and then leaving after early rounds. I cannot see where there would be more than three or four more hand offs per week, maximum. A shift from 10-12 to 12-14 hand offs would be most likely. But, if Dr. Polonsky is truly that concerned, I would also question if he is recommending the same continuity for all hospital employees, especially attending physicians.

3. Of course, the attending physicians would quit if told they had to work the same hours as a resident (in spite of getting paid three times as much, on average). But residents cannot quit (at least not easily, or unless they completely quit medicine), they have to accept the work hours handed to them.

4. While there are no "guarantees" that shorter shifts, or naps will help patient safety, many studies, including those reviewed in the IOM report do show that increased fatigue leads to increased medical errors. Good luck fighting that in court when your resident makes an error after hour 23. Basically the logic being used is, you can't prove it will work, because you haven't done it, so you better not do it because you can't prove it will work. Nice.

4. There are approximately 110,000 residents, of whom, approximately 50,000 are actively involved in direct hospital care. Given the average salary of $50,000 per year (Jeez! this is about double what I got ten years ago!), $1.6 Billion could hire approximately 32,000 more residents. Or almost 20,000 Nurse Practitioners. Are we really seeing a 30 to 60 percent increase in uncovered work load with these proposed changes? No chance.

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