Night Shifts Do Not Affect Surgeon Performance

Surgeons coming in from night shifts do not negatively affect operations scheduled during the morning, a new study found.


The research comes after the viral hashtag #YoTambienMeDormi (“I’ve also fallen asleep” in Spanish) in support of the picture of a medical resident sleeping behind a desk at a hospital in Mexico who was attacked for not doing her job.

Night Shifts Do Not Affect Surgeon Performance - Clapway

Given the choice between a well-rested surgeon and one who’s been up all night, few would choose the latter, but new findings in Ontario, Canada, unveiled that night shifts do not seem to affect performance at all. Yet researchers who looked at almost 40,000 patients found that the risk of complications was 22.2% for patients whose daytime procedures were carried out by a doctor who had worked between midnight and 7am. On the other hand, the risk was 22.4% among those whose doctors had not been working the night before. Almost identical.

Sleep deprivation “can impair mood, cognitive performance, and psychomotor function,” but apparently not among surgeons, the study authors write in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Elective morning surgeries after night shifts

The results of the study now serve as an argument against propositions that physicians should declare to their patients whether they are sleep-deprived or not, lead researcher Dr. Nancy Baxter from the University of Toronto told Reuters Health. She added that the findings should not be perceived as an “open season” on performing surgeries without considering self-regulation and levels of fatigue.

But not everyone agrees with the findings. Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston stated that the study “didn’t go far enough”.

According to a previous study Czeisler conducted in 2009, once the actual amount of sleep is taken into consideration, the odds of a serious mistake nearly triple.

“Overall, procedures performed the day after attending physicians worked overnight were not associated with significantly increased complication rates, although there was an increased rate of complications among postnighttime surgical procedures performed by physicians with sleep opportunities of less than 6 hours,” the report stated.

Night Shifts Do Not Affect Surgeon Performance - Clapway

Night shifts: No sleep no problem?

Statistics show that the average general surgeon works 50-60 hours per week – not including time available for call.

One of the most iconic pictures of an exhausted surgeon is the National Geographic best picture of 1987. Here, Zbigniew Religa is photographed after a 23 hour heart transplant while watching his patient’s vital signs. In the lower right corner, his colleagues who helped him with the surgery had fallen asleep. The heart transplantation surgery was considered “borderline impossible” at the time.

What do you think of a sleep-deprived surgeon and this study’s findings? Share your views in the comments section below.

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