Dead-tired Doctors Endanger You

Since it has been admitted that 100,000 Americans die each year due to medical errors in our hospitals, the profession now urges patients to ask bold and basic questions in the operating room, such as: "Now, which one of my kidneys are you preparing to remove?"

The American Medical Student Association, however, says that we patients should be asking another basic question: "When was the last time you slept, doc?"

It's not widely discussed, but a dangerous secret of hospital administration is that these places rely on grossly overworking the young, newly minted doctors known as resident physicians.

These doctors, who serve a required four-year hospital residency after medical school, are the backbone of patient care at most U.S. hospitals, and they are the ones who are bearing the brunt of ever more punishing workloads as corporatized hospitals cut staff at the same time that the number of patients is increasing. They commonly are on the job for 100 or more hours a week, including shifts that run for 36 straight hours.

Not surprisingly, four out of ten of these doctors say that their most serious mistakes are due to sheer exhaustion. Indeed, being awake for 24-hours leaves you with the hand-to-eye motor skills of someone who is legally drunk, yet these sleep-deprived doctors can still have another 12 hours to go on their shifts!

The AMSA points out that our country has laws that quite sensibly limit airline pilots to no more than 34 hours of flying each week and that restrict truckers to no more than 10 consecutive hours of driving. So, since we prohibit pilots from flying and truckers from driving while fatigued, and since we outlaw drunks on our roads, why do we allow doctors to deal with our life and death medical needs while they're bleary-eyed and mind-boggled?

This is Jim Hightower saying ... To learn more and to join AMSA in its fight for common-sense limits on residency work hours, call 703-620-6000, or go to the web site: www.amsa.org.

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