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Medical Malpractice

How Doctor Fatigue Impacts the Risk of Medical Malpractice

December 23, 2020

Doctor fatigue puts patients at higher risk of injury and death from preventable medical mistakes. In fact, healthcare provider overload is one of the top causes of medical malpractice. Patients who were injured by an exhausted doctor or other medical professional have the right to file a medical malpractice claim and recover compensation.

Is Doctor Fatigue Causing Patient Injuries?

According to the Institute of Medicine, 44,000 to 98,000 patients die in U.S. hospitals every year due to preventable medical mistakes. Although the reasons for medical mistakes and patient injuries vary, one reoccurring factor is fatigued healthcare professionals who are overworked, exhausted, and sleep-deprived while providing medical care.

Medical mistakes account for about 10% of patient deaths, but it’s suspected that numbers are much higher as medical mistakes are not noted on death certificates. Hospitals don’t record the causes of medical errors primarily due to the liability that medical professionals and hospitals would face in a medical malpractice lawsuit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if patient deaths from medical errors were noted, they would likely out-rank patient deaths from heart attacks, strokes, lung disease, respiratory failure, and kidney and liver diseases.

Fatigue is a major factor in patient errors and injuries in most hospitals. This is because physicians and medical professionals work long hours and overtime shifts that increase fatigue, sleep deprivation, and over-exertion. According to medical experts, fatigue and sleep deprivation cause the following conditions:

  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Impaired learning
  • Lapses in memory
  • Difficulty in thinking processes
  • Instability in mood
  • Slower reaction times

Medical studies show that the incidence of human error rises with fatigue, sleep deprivation, and stress. As performance decreases, errors of omission occur with increasing frequency. The most common types of preventable medical errors include communication and technical errors (44%); misdiagnosis of disease or illness (17%); improper medical or surgical procedures (12%); and medication or drug errors (10%).

Fatigue and sleep deprivation impacts both cognitive and physical functions. Medical experts note that overall performance increases from 8 AM – 2 PM, then gradually declines and reaches a low point from 2 AM – 5 AM. Cognitive and physical performance is closely aligned with the body’s circadian rhythm, which also governs hormones, mood, and body temperature.

When a physician or other medical professional is not responsible for his or her own work schedules, or if he or she is pushed to comply with harsh scheduling demands by the administration, the hospital may be liable for fatigue-related medical errors that cause patient harm.

About The Author

Photo of Jeffrey  Schulkin
Attorney Jeffrey Schulkin, partner of Goldberg & Schulkin Law Offices, has spent his entire professional career handling cases involving birth injury, medical malpractice, product liability and related accidents.