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Medical Malpractice

How Fatigue Impacts the Risk of Medical Malpractice

December 23, 2020

Fatigued and sleep-deprived medical professionals put patients at higher risks of injury and death from preventable medical errors.

Are Fatigued Doctors 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 errors. Although the reasons for medical errors and patient injuries vary, one reoccurring factor is fatigued healthcare professionals who are overworked, exhausted, and sleep-deprived while providing medical care.

Medical errors account for about 10% of patient deaths, but it’s suspected that numbers are much higher as medical errors are not noted on death certificates. Hospitals don’t record 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 M. Goldberg
Attorney Jeffrey M. Goldberg, founder of Goldberg & Schulkin Law Offices, has spent his entire professional career handling cases involving birth injury, medical malpractice, product liability, aviation and related accidents.