Do Tired Doctors Make More Mistakes?

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Tired Doctors

No matter how smart, how well educated, or how well trained they might be, human beings make mistakes. That includes medical doctors, who many times have to make decisions greatly impacting patients’ lives. When combining the obvious potential for natural human error with long hours that can make doctors tired, the potential for medical malpractice increases. In these situations, an experienced lawyer can be invaluable.

Study Affirms Mistakes by Tired Doctors

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Behavioural and Healthcare Research shows medical errors commonly occur because of fatigue and general tiredness among the resident physicians studied. Resident physicians and emergency room doctors are on the proverbial front line when it comes to first-responder services in the medical field. The combination of stress and often times overwhelming medical responsibilities virtually ensures medical mistakes are made.

The study suggests standardization of clinical practices is the best way to overcome inevitable physician errors during times of high stress. Improved working conditions also could improve patient outcomes by enabling doctors but require further study, according to the published study.

Another published work entitled the Harvard Work Hours, Health and Safety Study affirms fatigue directly causes medical mistakes. In response, the U.S. Accreditation Council imposed limits the number of hours a resident doctor could work. Results show mistakes continue to be made at relatively high rates because of fatigue and other causes.

Emergency Room Visits Could Raise Potential for Mistakes

People most often encounter tired medical doctors while in the emergency room. Emergency room doctors generally work long and very stressful hours that might see them tend to dozens of cases. A large city such as Baltimore can put a lot of pressure on emergency room doctors, who can work from start to finish without having a break during each shift.

Emergency room visits at Maryland hospitals in particular can be especially troublesome because of the relatively high number of patients treated. The average wait time to see a doctor in a hospital emergency room is 53 minutes in Maryland, which is the nation’s longest average wait time. The national average is just 22 minutes, so Maryland emergency room doctors in particular are subject to heavy workloads and understandably have a higher potential for making medical mistakes.

Long Hours and Unexpected Trauma

An emergency room doctor often works long shifts of up to 12 hours’ duration. Many doctors work between three and five emergency room shifts per week, and the hours could vary greatly. A medical doctor who works five shifts of 12 hours or more is putting in a lot of time and seeing a lot of patients. That means each patient has a relatively short window for emergency room doctors to assess the situation and determine the best pathway for treatment.

Whether visiting an emergency room in Baltimore or any other city or locale, the emergency room doctor generally has three very important decisions to make for each patient that he or she initially treats. Those decisions are as follows:

  • Refer to a medical specialist for further diagnosis and treatment, which might include surgery.
  • Admit to the hospital for more in-depth care and observation.
  • Treat and release the patient with no hospitalization needed.

One or more tending emergency room doctors essentially provide a kind of triage services that military medical staff provide in combat or emergency situations. A relatively high rate of patients is coming through the door and suffering from a wide range of possible medical problems. Those problems include gunshot wounds that very much are like those encountered in combat areas.

A high rate of patients suffering from a wide range of potential ailments greatly increases the potential for even the best medical doctors to make a basic human error. Unfortunately, that error could have a drastic effect on a patient’s life.

Exceptionally Stressful Job

Stress is a big factor in causing humans to make mistakes. Stress also tires people out much faster and affects judgment. When a doctor in an emergency room or hospital setting has slept too little and endures a high level of stress, a much greater potential for human error occurring exists. Working long hours in any emergency room setting can cause anyone to become tired and fatigued. When those hours do not match the body’s natural sleep cycle, the potential for making mistakes rises.

Many of the newer doctors at hospitals and emergency rooms work the night shift until earning enough seniority to obtain better hours. Anyone who has worked third shift already understands how just staying awake for those hours can cause fatigue and make it more difficult to rest during daylight hours.

When the additional stresses of overnight emergency room or hospital shift compounds the effects of fatigue and tiredness from too little sleep, even the best doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are prone to human error. That human error might have a drastic effect on a patient’s health and life.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Another issue impacting medical decisions is the tendency to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine and especially emergency medical treatment. When a patient is in imminent danger of death or other drastic health effects, medical decisions must be made right away. That means emergency room doctors are likely to prescribe the same medicine and treatments for similar ailments while anticipating similar results.

The problem is the human body is not the same from one person to the next. People grow and develop differently from virtually anyone else, and that means someone could have a drastically different effect from a commonly provided medicine or medical procedure. When tired hospital resident doctors and emergency room doctors have to make emergency medical decisions, they often rely on traditional treatments and medicines, which could trigger a negative reaction in the patient.

A good example is someone who is allergic to a particular medication but is not conscious to tell the doctor. The medicine could be prescribed through a normal and apparently reasonable approach to medical care but trigger a life-threatening reaction. That is why even a highly tested vaccine inevitably triggers bad reactions in a very tiny percentage of recipients.

Procedural Changes Might Reduce Mistakes

Ultimately, the best defense against inevitable medical mistakes by tired and fatigued doctors is for hospitals to standardize treatment procedures. The more standardized the intake and medical care provided, the less a fatigued and tired doctor will have to focus and concentrate on a particular patient. Much like a military triage, the emergency room doctor or tending resident physician can deal with medical emergencies by quickly assessing a medical condition.

If a specialist is needed, the patient sees one immediately for further evaluation and treatment. If hospitalization and further evaluation are in order, the tending physician can recommend that. Or the doctor could prescribe a modest treatment and medication and release the patient for the time being. Although that could help to minimize individual doctor errors and standardize treatment procedures, the one-size-fits-all approach ensures mistakes will continue.

Ultimately, a reasonable level of medical care is required, and standardized procedures that are based on sound medical science help to establish reasonable levels of care. When those reasonable levels of care are not provided, medical malpractice claims could arise.

Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Protect Patients Injured by Tired Doctors

The potential for suffering from medical errors caused by fatigued and tired doctors and other medical professionals is a very real threat to the nation’s health care industry. Locally, Baltimore hospitals often endure heavy pressure for emergency medical services, which could compound the problem and make medical errors and potential medical malpractice more likely to occur. If you or someone you know has suffered from medical mistakes, the experienced Baltimore medical malpractice lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton are ready for help. Call us at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.


Our offices are conveniently located in BaltimoreColumbiaGlen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, where we represent victims throughout Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern