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Surgeon Fatigue Places Patients at Risk of Medical Error

In New York, one orthopedic surgeon is currently facing 261 medical malpractice lawsuits. The claims against the physician charge him with medical error resulting from performing operations while tired and fatigued. According to the physician’s scheduling records, he performed an average of 17 operations per day.

Currently, there are no regulations in place limiting the number of operations that a surgeon can perform within a given day. However, surgeons who perform multiple operations during a given day often become tired and fatigued. Multiple studies support the finding that tired and fatigued surgeons place patients’ lives in danger.

Studies show that surgeons who are tired and fatigued function with less mental effectiveness.

In 2011, Georgia Regents University conducted a study which explored surgeons’ attitudes towards the effect of fatigue on their performance. According to the study, surgeons reported that fatigue affected their cognitive capability and fine motor skills. In addition, many of the surgeons interviewed as part of the study acknowledged that their fatigue had a large effect on patient safety.

In 2012, the medical journal Archives of Surgery reported that fatigue increased the risk of medical error amongst surgical residents by 22 percent. The average hours of sleep for the surgical residents participating in the study was 5.3 hours, ranging between 2.8 and 7.2 hours. The surgical residents felt tired half the time they were awake. For a quarter of the time they were awake, the surgical residents functioned at less than 70 percent mental effectiveness, which is the equivalent to being legally drunk.

Similarly, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that operations performed by surgeons who were not well rested increased patients’ chances of complication by 83 percent.

Surgeons are not subject to regulations limiting the number of operations they can perform in a single day.

These studies encouraged the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to establish limits on the number of consecutive hours that first year medical residents were allowed to work. As a result of these guidelines, medical residents cannot work more than 16 consecutive hours.

In 2011, The Joint Commission, which is responsible for inspecting and licensing surgical centers nationwide, issued a statement alerting medical professionals and healthcare institutions that fatigue amongst healthcare workers compromises patient safety by increasing the risk of medical errors. However, The Joint Commission did not go as far as to issue guidelines regarding the number of operations that may be performed in a given day. Another certifying organization, The American Board of Orthopedic Surgery, has stated that limits on the number of operations performed by a surgeon in a given day should be set by the surgical center or hospital where the surgeon works.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of medical error and you suspect that surgeon fatigue was at play, you should contact an attorney immediately.