The impact of sleep deprivation on surgeons' performance during night shifts

Dan Med J. 2014 Sep;61(9):B4912.


The median incidence of adverse events that may result in patient injury is a total of 9% of all in-hospital admissions. In order to reduce this high incidence initiatives are continuously worked on that can reduce the risk of patient harm during admission by strengthening hospital systems. However, the influence of physicians' shift work on the risk on adverse events in patients remains controversial. In the studies included in this PhD thesis we wished to examine the impact of sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disturbances on surgeons' during night shifts. Further we wished to examine the impact sleep deprivation had on surgeons' performance as a measure of how patient safety would be affected. We found that sleep deprivation subjectively had an impact on the surgeons and that they were aware of the effect fatigue had on their work performance. As a result they applied different mechanisms to cope with fatigue. Attending surgeons felt that they had a better overview now, due to more experience and better skills, than when they were residents, despite the fatigue on night shifts. We monitored surgeons' performance during night shifts by laparoscopic simulation and cognitive tests in order to assess their performance; no deterioration was found when pre call values were compared to on call values. The surgeons were monitored prospectively for 4 days across a night shift in order to assess the circadian rhythm and sleep. We found that surgeons' circadian rhythm was affected by working night shifts and their sleep pattern altered, resembling that of shift workers on the post call day. We assessed the quality of admission in medical records as a measure of surgeons' performance, during day, evening and night hours and found no deterioration in the quality of night time medical records. However, consistent high errors were found in several categories. These findings should be followed up in the future with respect of clarifying mechanism and consequences for patient safety. In conclusion the assessment of the impact of sleep deprivation on surgeons' performance during night shift is complex and multi-faceted. Surgeons do feel an impact of sleep deprivation during night shifts, and their circadian rhythm is affected. Despite this, it appears that the surgeons are able to compensate for the effects of sleep loss. We did not find any results to support that sleep loss results in psychomotor or cognitive deterioration during a 17-hour night shift or that sleep deprivation during a night shift results in reduced patient safety.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Cognition
  • Fatigue / etiology*
  • Fatigue / physiopathology
  • Fatigue / psychology
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Laparoscopy / psychology
  • Laparoscopy / standards
  • Male
  • Medical Records / standards
  • Middle Aged
  • Personnel Staffing and Scheduling*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sleep Deprivation / etiology*
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology
  • Sleep Deprivation / psychology
  • Surgeons / organization & administration
  • Surgeons / psychology*
  • Surgeons / standards
  • Work Schedule Tolerance / psychology*