November 10, 2009

Duty Hours and Their Effect on Learning

by Elizabeth A. Sinclair, Pharm.D., PGY1 Resident, Johns Hopkins Hospital

The beginning of my PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital was filled with days and days of orientation. We covered everything from fire safety to service excellence. One day, as we reviewed the Pharmacy Residency Handbook and residency-specific policies, the topic of duty hours came up. In order to be eligible for accreditation, the American Society of Health Systems Pharmacists requires that pharmacy residency programs follow the duty hour requirements set forth by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). These requirements, which became effective July 1, 2003, were issued in an effort to prevent excessive fatigue, which could potentially lead to medical errors. Residency duty hours are limited as follows:

  • Duty hours must not exceed 80 hours per week, averaged over a 4-week period.
  • Every 7 days had to contain at least one 24-hour period free of clinical responsibilities.
  • In-house call could not be more than every 3rd night, averaged over a 4-week period.
  • In-house call could not last more than 24 hours (plus 6 hours for continuity of care) per shift.
  • A minimum of 10 hours between daily duty periods and after in-house call must be allowed.
  • No new patients may be accepted after 24 hours of continuous duty.
  • Vacation days may not count as “days off”.
  • Home call must count toward the 80 hours if the resident comes to the hospital.

Duty hours were defined as: all clinical and academic activities related to the program; i.e., patient care (both inpatient and outpatient), administrative duties relative to patient care, the provision for transfer of patient care, time spent in-house during call activities, and scheduled activities, such as conferences. Duty hours do not include reading and preparation time spent away from the duty site.

After my initial review of these requirements, I found them reasonable, and I did not feel that I would be affected greatly by them. I was expecting that 80 hours per week would be the maximum I would ever need or want to work (oh, new resident, so young and naïve!). However, as I have progressed through my residency, I have discovered that I was quite mistaken. It is incredibly easy to come dangerously close to that 80-hour mark. When non-duty hours are included, I guarantee that I, along with all my fellow residents, exceed 80 hours on a weekly basis. However, as much of our work is not related to patient care, e.g. educational presentations, committee responsibilities, research activities, course work for classes not required for completion of the residency, etc., we remain within the ACGME requirements. Although I appreciate the ACGME requirements, especially when they allow me to sleep until 7:30 or 8 AM on a post-call day, there are times when they seem to make life a bit more difficult. For example, on post-call days, although it is nice to have the built in rest time, one often ends up joining rounds somewhere in the middle, not having had the opportunity to pre-round. This makes it very difficult to contribute to the team and also results in the resident spending a good portion of the day playing catch-up. Overall, I feel the effects of ACGME duty hour requirements are beneficial for my educational experience, but there are times when learning might be enhanced if they were not followed.

My mixed feelings toward the ACGME requirements are consistent with what’s been documented in the literature. In a survey of chief residents and neurosurgical program directors examining the impact of ACGME duty hour requirements on neurosurgical residents, 96% of the respondents believed that the requirements had compromised resident training, and 98% thought that it had decreased resident surgical experience. Most thought that the requirements negatively affected patient safety and access to care, and that the residents’ cognitive development and education had been compromised (Jagannathan, et al. J Neurosurg. 2009;100:820-7). Similar sentiments were seen in another study which compared the operative experience of chief residents before and after duty-hour restrictions were in effect (Damadi, et al. J Surg Ed. 2007;64:256-9). This study, which included general surgery residents, found that residents experienced an approximately 25% decrease in the number of cases during their chief-year and an approximately 15% decrease in number of cases during their non-chief years. A survey of internal medicine residents found that about 25% of residents reported spending less time teaching patients. However, these residents did report being less emotionally exhausted, and, in contrast to the previously cited studies, were more satisfied with the patient care they provided (J Hosp Med. 2009;4:476-80).

Overall, the ACGME requirements seem to have both positive and negative impact on residency training. Further study is needed to discern if training under these restrictions leads to inferior or superior job performance as residents move into independent practice.

[Editor's Commentary: Whether the ACGME duty hour restrictions has had the intended effect - reduce the risk of patient harm due to medical errors cause by fatigue - has not, to my knowledge, been clearly shown. However, there is a significant body of literature that demonstrates that excessive fatigue adversely impacts learning. The relationship between stress and learning is an interesting one. Similar to the Frank-Starling Curve of the heart, low to moderate levels of stress can improve performance and accelerate learning.

But, similar to the heart muscle, there is a point of diminishing returns. As the graph illustrates, initially, stress (end diastolic pressure) has a positive influence on learning (peak systolic pressure) .... but excessive stress results in (brain and muscle) fatigue and eventually learning (peak systolic pressure) begins to decline. But where is the point of diminishing returns (you may be asking)? Similar to the heart muscle, the point of diminishing returns depends on a number of factors and varies from person to person. A young heart (or brain) is generally more resilient than an older heart (or brain) ... and can withstand greater pressure over longer periods of time. But do we really want to push people to their limits? Duty hour limits are a good idea - even if they (occasionally) result in missed opportunities for learning. -S.H.]

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