We all have an image in our head of the overworked hospital intern. Whether from watching Grey’s Anatomy or from personal experience, it’s a widespread notion that first-year residents are overworked and always tired. For many, this image conjures up fears of medical malpractice.

Over the last 10 years, call days for hospital interns have been substantially reduced in an effort to prevent errors. In 2003, shifts were reduced to 30 hours from 36, and two years ago, regulations changed again to restrict interns to 16-hour shifts. The thought behind the changes was that longer shifts caused more errors. So, by giving interns shorter shifts and more breaks, they would be well-rested and make fewer errors. As it turns out, this logic doesn’t always hold true.

After studying the habits of interns under various shift structures, Johns Hopkins Hospital found that interns with shorter shifts did not get much more sleep than other interns and had to hand off three times as many patients to another intern. While change in the quality of care wasn’t measured, it is certainly imaginable that notes or other important information about a patient could get lost in the shuffle.

A second study at another university hospital compared interns’ performance before the new regulations took place in 2011 to intern performance under the new regulations. Interestingly, the study found that interns under the current regulations committed more errors than those who worked for longer shifts before the change.

The findings of both of these studies suggest that something more needs to be done to prevent medical errors than simply reducing interns’ hours. Hopefully hospitals and health care officials in Connecticut and across the country will work to find a way to ensure patient safety in hospitals.

Source: CBS News, “Shorter shifts for medical interns may not mean fewer mistakes,” Michelle Castillo, March 26, 2013