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Medical residents' days stretch from 16 hours to 24-hour shifts

This past weekend, 30,000 first-year medical residents began working in hospitals from San Antonio to San Francisco to New York and points in between. As the new doctors began their first rounds, new work rules went into effect that could add 8 hours or even more to their shifts.

Doctors just out of medical school will now be able to work for 24 hours straight instead of being limited to 16-hour shifts. With the change come concerns that medical errors that harm patients will occur with greater frequency.

As many regular readers of our San Antonio legal blog know, studies show that up to 10 percent of all deaths in the United States are due to medical error. That makes medical error the third most common cause of death in the U.S., following heart disease and cancer.

Some doctors welcome the shift-length change, saying that it enables physicians to care for patients and reduce risks to them. Far too often, patients are harmed when shift-changes take place and critical information is not transitioned accurately from doctors and nurses to the medical personnel starting a new shift.

Some advocates of the longer days say it will help new doctors become invested in their patients, rather than fostering a shift-work culture.

Not only will first-year residents be able to work 24-hour shifts, but if they want to, they can work even longer. They cannot exceed an average of 80 hours per week, however.

A doctor with consumer rights group Public Citizen says the longer days will have serious consequences.

"Keep in mind interns have just graduated medical school,” Dr. Sammy Almashat said. "They are the least experienced, the least knowledgeable members of the medical team caring for patients."

He says "the evidence shows, unequivocally" that longer hours can be detrimental to patients.

A recent Harvard study backs his claim, showing that resident make nearly 36 more serious medical mistakes when they work 24 hours or longer.

Those harmed by a negligent doctor can speak with a San Antonio attorney experienced in medical malpractice litigation, including actions against Veterans Affairs doctors and hospitals.

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