Is Giving Young Doctors More Rest Good for Patients?

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A European regulation put into effect August 1 limiting junior doctors from working more than 48 hours a week — down from a 56-hour week set in 2007 — has stirred up turmoil in the U.K.’s medical community. Some physicians and hospital administrators worry that further trimming work hours will cripple already understaffed hospitals and put a greater strain on the National Health Service just as it is grappling with tens of thousands of cases of swine flu each week. Advocates for the reduction say that compliance is already at 97%, and that these fears are unfounded, but critics argue that figures are likely skewed by young doctors who feel pressured to fudge their time sheets.

In the U.S., where the current work limitation for medical residents is 80 hours per week, the debate over shift length has raged for years: do the long hours and sleepless nights that characterize medical training help prepare young doctors for the rigors of their profession? Or does filling hospitals with dazed and drooping residents only endanger their patients? The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the organization that sets the rules for U.S. residency programs, is now hashing out how to ensure that young doctors get enough rest while also having adequate opportunity to learn, and of course, ensuring optimal patient care. Perhaps they should keep an eye on the success of the U.K.’s latest initiative. —By Tiffany Sharples