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Long Hours Harm Patients and Doctors

June 20, 2002

Re "Relief in Sight for Sleep- Deprived Medical Residents," June 13: I am a second-year resident physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance. Over the past two years, I have learned time and time again that long hours are bad medicine. I've made patient-care mistakes after being up for 24-plus hours; I've fallen asleep while talking with my patients; I've fallen asleep at stoplights while driving home after long shifts.

All doctors take an oath upon graduation from medical school to "first, do no harm," but then we are thrust into a residency system that often pushes us beyond our human limits, and harm is the result. Harm to our patients' lives and harm in our own lives (car crashes, pregnancy complications, needle sticks, depression). Resident physicians are extremely dedicated individuals, but we are also human beings. Something has to give way when the limits of human capacity are exceeded (i.e., working for 36 hours straight every third night, and 80-plus hours a week for 48-plus weeks of the year). Resident well-being goes first, and the quality of patient care follows.

Organized medicine has failed to monitor itself on this issue for too long. It is time for legislation that will protect the health of both patients and medical residents. It is time for legislation that will enforce reasonable and safe resident physician work hours.

Dan Schaefer MD

Harbor-UCLA Medical Center

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