With the grueling hours demanded in the field of medicine, it should come as no surprise that many doctors and surgeons fall victim to sleep deprivation. Those depriving their bodies of sleep are at much higher risk of being involved in car accidents and hospital related injuries, which should be recognized by their superiors. Not only is it a threat to their health, but to their patients’ as well.

Long work hours are inevitable in medical professions due to the constant need of patients at any given time, and the time demanded is particularly heightened for postgraduate students. While staying later into the night may seem beneficial for those in need of medical attention, sleep deprivation has an adverse affect on the care given by medical professionals. This can lead to lapses in judgment, resulting in potentially worsening health problems being treated by those lacking a full eight hours.

A few factors that can affect alertness and proper cognitive function include:

  • Quantity and quality of sleep
  • Sleep Inertia
  • Circadian rhythm

Most people know that the desired amount of hours slept in a night should be anywhere from seven to nine. For physicians working 100+ hours a week, this can be extremely difficult to achieve. Missing a few hours of sleep every night consistently can be just as detrimental as not sleeping at all for one or two days a week. Studies have shown that being awake for 18 hours can produce impairments in motor skills comparable to having a blood alcohol content of .05%, and .10% after 24 hours. For doctors and residents alike, this can prove very dangerous when handling things like pharmaceuticals or surgical tools, performing surgeries, and properly diagnosing patients.

Sleep inertia is a psychological state that most experience upon immediately awakening from sleep. In this condition, a decline in motor dexterity is very common, along with feelings of grogginess and impaired alertness. This can last for roughly 10-15 minutes after slumber, but have been known to take hours to dissipate in certain cases, those cases being sleep deprivation. A factor that can lengthen these feelings is having to wake during early morning hours; a basic requirement for medical professionals.

A person’s circadian rhythm is his or her 24 hour cycle that regulates both sleep and wake patterns. Neurons in the hypothalamus fluctuate to promote cognitive efficiency during the day, and tiredness at night, thus developing a diurnal schedule. Doctors working late into the early hours of the morning effectively going against their bodies’ sleep cycles. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to an increase in errors during odd hours of the day.

Assessing patients requires a completion of complex tasks both quickly and accurately, and medical emergencies can arise at any given time, calling for moments of precision and skill. For physicians suffering from sleep deprivation, meeting any of these demands can be extremely difficult. Hospitals, doctors offices, and surgical centers should all account for this potential increase in risk, and adjust shift schedules accordingly to prevent any one medical professional from working exhausting hours, which can lead to fatal errors.