Restricting resident work hours: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Crit Care Med. 2012 Mar;40(3):960-6. doi: 10.1097/CCM.0b013e3182413bc5.


Objectives: Inadequate sleep and long work hours are long-standing traditions in the medical profession, and work schedules are especially intense in resident physicians. However, it has been increasingly recognized that the extreme hours commonly worked by residents may have substantial occupational and patient safety consequences. Largely because of these concerns, new regulations related to resident work hours came into effect July 2011, in the United States. Residents in their first year of training are now restricted to a maximum shift length of 16 hrs, with residents in subsequent years restricted to a maximum of 24 hrs. The purpose of this review is to summarize the literature regarding resident work hours in the intensive care unit, focusing on the potential positive and negative impacts of work hour limits.

Data sources: The authors electronically searched MEDLINE, manually searched reference lists from retrieved articles, and reviewed their own personal databases for articles relevant to resident work hour limits.

Methods and main results: To function well, humans, including physicians, require adequate sleep. Resident work hour limits will likely reduce the incidence of fatigue-related medical errors and improve resident safety and quality of life. However, a reduction in work hours may not represent the panacea for patient safety given the potential for increased errors because of discontinuity. Furthermore, there may be other substantial negative impacts, including reduced clinical exposure, erosion of professionalism, and inadequate preparation for independent practice. Costs of implementation are likely to be substantial.

Conclusion: Currently, there is fairly limited evidence available, and a more in-depth understanding of this complex topic is required to design a residency experience that will provide the next generation of physicians the best compromise between education, experience, and quality patient care. In the end, the primary goal of the postgraduate medical education system must be to ensure the creation of healthy physicians who can provide excellent clinical care in this complex interdisciplinary medical industry and who will have long fulfilling careers providing this outstanding care to their patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency / statistics & numerical data*
  • Quality of Health Care / standards*
  • Time Factors
  • Workload / statistics & numerical data*