Doctors might as well be drunk

The long work weeks of doctors in training leave them so fatigued that their reaction times are comparable to someone who is slightly drunk, say researchers.

Resident doctors following a "heavy call" schedule that can require a 90-hour work week performed more poorly on a driving simulation test than those on a "light call" rotation averaging 44 hours a week who then drank liquor until their blood alcohol level reached 0.05 per cent, the study said. Drivers with a 0.08 per cent blood alcohol level are considered drunk.

The research echoes a previous study that found interns who worked heavy schedules made 50 per cent more mistakes with patients and had 22 per cent more serious errors on critical care units.

A survey of resident doctors also found they were three times more likely than average to have been involved in a motor vehicle crash. New rules enacted in 2003 lowered the weekly work schedules for US doctors in training to a maximum of 80 hours, the report said.

"Residents must be aware of post-call performance impairment and the potential risk to personal and patient safety," study author Todd Arnedt of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, wrote in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Because sleepy residents may have limited ability to recognise the degree to which they are impaired, residency programmes should consider these risks when designing work schedules and develop risk management strategies for residents, such as considering alternative call schedules or providing post-call napping quarters," he wrote, reported REUTERS.

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