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Should Patients Be Informed Before Surgery if Their Doctor is Sleep Deprived?

By Attorney Michael B. Zerres on January 14, 2011

It is widely believed that sleep deprivation impairs performance as severely as alcohol intoxication.

A recent article published by The New England Journal of Medicine discussed the impact a physician’s sleep deprivation has on their job performance, and asserted that patients should be informed of a doctor’s lack of sleep before an elective surgical procedure.

According to the article, there is an 83 percent increased risk of complications (such as an organ injury or massive hemorrhage) in patients who undergo elective surgical procedures performed by an attending surgeon who had less than 6 hours of sleep between procedures (during an on-call night shift).

In response to this issue, current regulations regarding resident physician work hours have been changed to restrict trainees in their first postgraduate year to a maximum of 16 continuous hours of work, followed by a minimum of eight hours of off-duty time. However, there are no such regulations in place for attending physicians who have completed their training. Many healthcare institutions have policies that prohibit busy doctors from scheduling elective procedures on days following being on call for extended periods of time. The article argues that such policies should be standard practice in the medical community where elective surgery is able to be rescheduled.

A survey found that the majority of patients would be concerned for their safety if they were pre-operatively aware their surgeon had been awake for 24 consecutive hours. Patients would also want to be informed of a doctor’s sleep deprivation. In such circumstances, 80 percent of those surveyed stated that they would ask for a different physician.

The Sleep Research Society (SRS) has endorsed legislation that would make it mandatory for a physician who had been awake for 22 of the previous 24 hours to inform patients of their sleep deprivation and the potential impact on the safety of the patient’s health due to the sleep deprivation. The SRS also recommends that sleep deprived physicians get a patient’s consent before providing them with care or performing any surgical procedures.

If you or a loved one has suffered injury due to a doctor’s negligence, there may be legal options available. To learn more, contact our law office at 973-635-5400 to schedule a no-cost consultation with one of the New Jersey medical malpractice attorneys at Blume Goldfaden.

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