Effects of Long Work Hours on Driving
Doctors are notorious for working long hours. Illness and emergencies can occur at all hours of the day; they don't wait for bank hours. Unlike most other professions, at least one doctor needs to be available at all hours in case of emergencies or overnight issues.
In a study published by JAMA, doctors who had just finished an overnight shift were tested against doctors who worked fewer overnight shifts in order to see the effects of long hours on alertness and reaction time.
They found that when it came to driving, volunteers who had worked an overnight shift were not surprisingly worse at driving than volunteers who had not.
To compare sleepy driving to drunk driving, they also gave some other doctors vodka tonics. They found that doctors who had worked overnight drove worse than the doctors given 2 drinks. They measured this with a driving simulator to see whether the volunteers could drive a car in a straight line and at a constant speed.
What "On Call" Means for Doctors
Reaction Time vs Sleep Deprivation in Doctors
Doctors who worked overnight shifts also had a slower reaction time, as measured by the Psychomotor Vigilance Test. They had reaction times similar to doctors who were given 2 alcoholic drinks.
Some of the longest work hours are found in Surgeons, who often take care of very sick patients recovering from surgery. During these long shifts, they also sometimes perform surgeries. This research raises questions about whether long working hours for surgeons is a potential patient safety issue, given the slower reaction time and alertness of overworked doctors.
Sleepiness and Alertness After Overnight Shifts
Doctors not only performed worse, they also felt worse themselves.
Doctors after an overnight shift were rated as far sleepier and far less alert, according to the Visual Analogue Scale.
Visual Analogue Scale
This research shows that overnight shifts are not only miserable, they are also potentially dangerous, particularly when driving back home.
The doctors who were in the control group also had the occasional overnight shift, but at much lower frequencies.
While overnight shifts are necessary in many industries, including medicine, this research points to significant drawbacks to having too many too often.
Related: Physician Burnout
The practice of medicine can be brutal at times with long hours and very sick patients.
Doctors are getting burned out and its affecting patients. A new study shows that burned out doctors have twice the rate of patient safety incidents and low professionalism. Burnout has been increasing in mahy specialties. Some physician specialties have it worse than others.