Part 2: Is Shift in Hours Enough to Prevent Medical Errors?

In our previous post, we began a discussion of the new standard for medical intern training. It has become a commonly discussed problem that in July, when new medical interns usually start their residencies, the rate of hospital errors increases.

Suggested reasons behind interns’ mistakes include the duration of a work shift. Until this year, it wasn’t uncommon for them to work 30-hour shifts. Safety advocates feared that negligence caused by fatigue was putting patients at risk, which is why now the shift rules have changed, allowing interns to work 16-hour shifts at the most. Studies reportedly show, however, that more changes are needed to improve patient safety.

According to The New York Times, when the rate of medical mistakes was studied in facilities that tried requiring shorter shifts for interns in the past, no marked improvement was identified. Even the most vocal, consistent supporters of work shift changes recognize that’s likely true – because there are other issues within medical facilities that need to be addressed.

Among those supposed problem areas, sources suggest that not all hospitals have been good about implementing changes in work shifts. Some also believe that new interns need more supervision by experienced doctors. Another way sources believe hospitals could significantly improve safety is by creating and enforcing the patient handoff process.

A handoff is when one doctor (or intern) leaves his or her shift and a patient begins seeing someone new. Especially with the change in work shift hours, there will be more handoffs, making that area of utmost priority. Medical professionals need to have a strict standard of handing patients off to each other, in order to avoid doctors and interns from taking over a case without the necessary information that would lead to safe treatment.

Improving hospital safety is going to be an ongoing process, but it is one that is invaluable to the future of all patients.


  • The New York Times: “The Phantom Menace of Sleep-Deprived Doctors,” Darshak Sanghavi, Aug. 5, 2011