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Overworked Medical Interns at Double Risk of Injuring Themselves

Doctors in training -- known as residents or interns -- have traditionally worked long hours with little sleep, as they gained experience treating hospital patients. In 2003 the U.S. medical profession limited the working hours of first-year residents. But a new survey shows that many of these trainees are still putting in more time than recommended, and some are injured in the process. VOA's Melinda Smith has details of the survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

For decades first-year residents in U.S. hospitals have put in grueling hours. In 2003, the medical profession changed the recommended work schedule from 160-hours to 80-hours a week. The 80-hour figure is still double the traditional 40-hour workweek most American workers spend on the job.

Now it appears that these doctors in training are still putting in more time than they should.

Dr. Charles Czeisler of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts is a sleep expert and one of the researchers on the study. He says that work hour standards are abused. "We found that 80 percent of interns across the nation reported that they violated current work hour standards that have been established by the profession."

Many interns also worked more than 30 consecutive hours in a shift. While there is often time for a two or three hour nap, problems continued even when the shifts were cut back to 20 hours.

A number of young doctors accidentally stuck themselves with needles or cut themselves with scalpels.

Dr. Czeisler says fewer hours on duty could help limit the number of injuries. "It's just common sense. If you've been working more than 20 consecutive hours, your risk of making an error, having a lapse of attention, a lapse of concentration, is much higher than if you're fresh and you're within the first eight hours of your workday."

When intern Mike Westerhaus isn't making rounds in a hospital ward, he is practicing on a training mannequin. He wants to get the most out of his training, but he also understands the need for balance. "We're humans, we have limits and that to step aside, take a break, rest up, is actually very important in providing care as well."

Some young doctors complain that shorter duty schedules limit their experience of following a patient's continuous care in the hospital. There has also been fear that hospitals would be short-staffed. But advocates of duty restrictions say a doctor who has had plenty of rest is bound to be more alert when the need arises.