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Patient safety affected by sleepy doctors

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11 April 2012

Dr Chris Landrigan
Dr Chris Landrigan

A sleep researcher from Harvard who first highlighted how sleep-deprivation caused US doctors to make more serious errors while treating hospital patients, is bringing his expertise to Melbourne.

Based in Boston, Dr Chris Landrigan is an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School, Research Director of the Inpatient Pediatrics Service at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Director of the Sleep and Patient Safety Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A major area of his research is the effects of fatigue on the performance of his colleagues and trainee doctors.

Dr Landrigan found that interns who worked under the schedule of 24-to-30-hour hospital shifts common in the US made 36 per cent more serious patient care errors than when working shorter shifts, and 500 per cent more diagnostic errors. Other studies have found they were also twice as likely to have car accidents on their journey home, and to suffer needlestick injuries after working more than 20 hours in a row.

"We weren't surprised by the results but I think the community on the whole was shocked by the magnitude of the problem," Dr Landrigan said.

"These schedules are deeply embedded in the fabric of the medical education system in the US and in some ways the rest of the world. There was and still is a tendency to downplay it."

Dr Landrigan is in Melbourne with the support of the Harvard Club of Australia Foundation. He will work with Monash University sleep researchers, and with their colleagues in the Monash Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, on a pilot study using some of his research methods.

Dr Landrigan said he was drawn to Monash because he had previously worked with University researchers, including Associate Professor Shantha Rajaratnam. 

"There is lots of back and forth between the sleep groups at Monash and Harvard. My research group, the Harvard Work Health and Safety Group, incudes Shantha, who still works with us from afar," Dr Landrigan said. 

"There are also opportunities for Monash postgraduate students to undertake their studies at Harvard."

In addition to undertaking research, Dr Landrigan will conduct a series of lectures and seminars at Monash and partner institutions, sharing best practice, understanding techniques for measuring medical errors, speaking out about patient safety, implementing systematic surveillance systems and encouraging safe work practices and teamwork.

Dr Landrigan hopes that his research will inspire wider discussion on the working conditions of and expectations placed on medical practitioners.

"We're looking at putting different types of intervention systems in place to encourage change, working with policy makers to move things forward."