Uncertainty loomed when reforms shortened working hours for U.S. doctors-in-training. Mind-boggling work weeks for recent medical school graduates sometimes reached 100 exhausting hours. But when medical schools chose to institute a cap at 80 hours per week, people worried. Would new doctors have enough time to learn fully the art of medicine?
A study published in the medical journal BMJ compared the patient care given by doctors trained before and after the work hours were shortened. The study’s conclusion was somewhat surprising. More hours did not result in better patient health.
“Some still long for the old days of 100-hour work weeks. But most of the world has moved on and realized there are better ways to train residents,” says Dr. Karl Bilimoria of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
How did medical schools cut 20 hours from trainees’ work weeks? Getting rid of extra paperwork and some academic conferences helped. So did adding nurse practitioners to the workforce. Doctor training became more focused and more efficient.
Previous studies had suggested that lessened hours didn’t harm residents’ patients. The new study shows that the same reassuring results followed doctors out of their residencies and into the real world.
The study tracked more than 400,000 hospitalized Medicare patients and their doctors. Researchers compared cases from two different six-year time periods before and after 2006. That’s when the hour cap went into effect.
The study found no difference in patient deaths, re-admissions, or costs. The success could be based on multiple factors. For one thing, patients don’t depend solely on one doctor. Hospitals operate with teams of doctors, nurses, and other aids. Additionally, a rested doctor may be more thorough, thoughtful, and cautious than an exhausted one—even with less experience.
Technology has the potential to shorten doctors’ hours even more. Artificial intelligence is already assuming a larger role in diagnosis and treatment. Is 80 hours per week the perfect number for training? Could it be less and still be effective?
Doctors rightly dedicate long hours to their important trade—historically more hours than most apprentices in other fields. But a physician is still only human. All people—in any profession—must work diligently while also trusting God to provide for physical and mental limitations. The Bible depicts the Christian life as one with a balance between work and rest. For example, Exodus 34:21 repeats the fourth commandment, saying, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest.”