Canadian Medical Journal issues wake-up call on doctor sleep deprivation

An editorial titled “Working while sleep-deprived: not just a problem for residents” published recently in an edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal calls out doctors for ignoring the issue of logging too many hours and the knock on effect of sleep deprivation.

“We doctors ourselves are part of the problem,” states the editorial. “We must admit that working while sleep deprived is neither normal nor acceptable.”

An excerpt from the Victoria Times adds “the article asks doctors to imagine the reaction from patients if people were required to provide an informed consent prior to accepting treatment from a sleep-deprived physician”.

But neither the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., which sets performance and training standards for doctors in this province, nor the B.C. Medical Association, which advocates on behalf of doctors, has adopted a position on appropriate rest times for physicians or the length of time a doctor should stay at work or on call.

The Canadian Medical Association journal said the problem of sleep-deprived doctors would only get worse if nothing was done about it. The study also called for a shift in the perception of hospital working culture, saying that using long, sleepless shifts as a badge of honor should stop.

“Those of us who remain overconfident that we can continue to perform our duties properly with inadequate sleep should imagine the reaction if we were made to seek informed consent from each of our patients to accept treatment under these conditions”, said the doctors who wrote the report.

Even though solving the problem would protect patients, doing so would cost a lot of money. In 2009, a study in the United States found that the physician workforce would have to increase by 71%. In the mean time, some hospitals and other practices have implemented strategies like strict going home rules, shift work, and the reorganization of schedules.

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