Long Hours Make Medical Residents Dangerous Drivers

A new study suggests that medical interns may be dangerous drivers if they work long hours and get little sleep.

Researchers discovered that residents who had just completed their medical school training were twice as likely as those who worked a regular shift to report a traffic collision after long hours. Interns reported nearly six times the likelihood of reporting a near-miss accident after working long hours, as they were more likely to have fallen asleep behind the wheel. Researchers say that despite long-standing concerns regarding the impact of long shifts lasting more than 24 hours on performance of medical residents in the U.S., these long hours are still a hallmark of American medical education. However, few studies have examined the specific effects of interns’ work schedules on such things as traffic accidents and falling asleep behind the wheel.

Research by Laura K. Barger, PhD of Harvard Medical School’s Channing Laboratory, shows that interns working extended shifts increases their risk of serious medical mistakes and “poses an important and preventable safety risk for them and other motorists.” Laura K. Barger and her colleagues wrote the findings. They write that “These results have important implications on scheduling practices in medical residency programs,” in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Beware of the Medical Residents on the Road

Researchers surveyed 2,737 residents during their first year of medical school. They asked about their work schedules, any traffic accidents or near-misses involving them falling asleep at their wheel. Researchers discovered that medical residents work an average of four extended shifts per week, with an average duration around 32 hours. Analyses showed that for each extended shift in a month, there was an increase of 9% in the risk of a traffic crash and that the risk of a collision during commute to work increased by 16%. During the five-month period that medical residents worked extended shifts of five or more, the chance that they would fall asleep behind the wheel or in traffic was more than tripled. These findings are particularly concerning because motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause for death in young adults, according to researchers.

The researchers write that “Given the 69% of our interns who commuted by car (69%), these results suggest that implementing a work schedule to interns without any extended shifts may prevent a significant number of crashes.”

Updated 01/19/22