In what may come as surprise to those outside the medical community, the newest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine published a piece by three physicians arguing that surgeons who are on call all night, and thus receive fewer than six hours of sleep, should either be barred from the operating room or, at least, be obligated to disclose to the situation to their patients (who would be given an opportunity to reschedule).
Our top Chicago medical malpractice attorneys do not think that the public will be shocked by the proposition itself, but by the need for it – many patients may be startled to learn that such a rule is not already in place.
Think no one could possibly oppose such a commonsense measure? Think again. In the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine containing the proposal, a counterargument is also presented. In a letter, three surgeons – members of the American College of Surgeons – attack the proposal. These doctors argue that patients need not be informed if their surgeons have not slept, because doctors can be trained to “identify and address” their fatigue. Moreover, these doctors argue, surgeons are capable of conducting basic surgeries “with or without a good night’s sleep.” Wow.
This astounding argument defies both logic and evidence, and simply underscores the troubled state of medical culture in America. First, sleep experts have long known that one of the consequences of fatigue, like intoxication, is the inability to identify your own impairment — we’ve analyzed the consequences of this with sleep-deprived commercial truck drivers. The suggestion that surgeons can identify and “address” their fatigue after being up all night is dubious, at best.
Perhaps more importantly, surgeons are not demigods, who can rise above the realities of the rest of us mortals and magically perform in spite of sleep deprivation. Our medical malpractice lawyers would love to know whether the surgeons who argued otherwise have ever voluntarily subjected themselves to being cut open by a colleague who hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. We suspect not.
But even if common sense did not tell you that surgeons, like anyone else, should not be performing important tasks while sleep deprived, the evidence would. Indeed, studies have shown that surgical complications increase by 83 percent when the operating surgeon was on call the night before and got fewer than six hours of sleep. However much surgeons would like to believe themselves capable of performing despite not sleeping, the hard facts say otherwise.
Our experienced Chicago truck accident attorneys have long known that sleep-deprived individuals cause accidents. We are unsurprised to learn that this is just as true in the operating room as it is on the road. We urge hospitals, medical organizations, and our legislators to take up this issue and put rules in place that will protect surgical patients. In the meantime, we encourage patients to inquire about their surgeon’s night prior to submitting to elective surgery.
And for those who suffer surgical complications, we encourage these patients to inquire as well. If you learn that your surgeon was sleep deprived when your complication occurred, talk to an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. Your surgeon may have been negligent, and you may have a claim. Bringing that claim could force the adoption of safety rules that will protect the patients that come after you.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago medical malpractice attorney at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.