Are Doctors Super Human?

It’s common knowledge that an example is more powerful than words. After all, aren’t parents routinely admonished for telling their children to do one thing while clearly breaking that same rule themselves? For parents and non-parents alike, saying one thing while doing something else greatly diminishes the influence of the words. Maybe that explains why most people don’t get enough zzzzzzz’s. Let me explain.

The number of people who suffer from sleep-deprivation are substantial. Data from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2007 Sleep Study shows that 67% of women experience sleep problems more than once a week. And beyond the statistics, it is obvious that sleep-issues plague many. Just take a look at the covers of magazines or check out your local paper; you don’t have to look far to find a story about how to sleep better.

Ironically, medical professionals routinely assert that getting a proper night’s rest is vital, is necessary, to being healthy and feeling good. Adequate, quality sleep is touted to help a number of medical problems from clinical depression to the common cold. And anyone who has worked or works with children knows first-hand how important a good-night’s sleep is for promoting a balanced mood and emotional resilience. Point is, sleep is one of the most important things we can do to keep our bodies and minds healthy. At least that’s what the medical professionals tell us.

This is precisely why it has always amazed me that this same profession has routinely ignored their own advice. The recent BMJ article, Efforts to reduce US trainees’ hours were ineffective, study says, is recent evidence that interns and doctors are still expected to work ridiculously long hours in hospitals.

The consequences of tired doctors on-call are obvious and so to remedy this problem the US Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education enforced new limits of no more than 30 consecutive hours for residents whose long shifts were more likely to cause mistakes or patient risks. Interns participating in this particular study kept journals noting the basics such as hours spent working or sleeping. They also noted things such as car crashes or possible risky medical situations such as errors they made.

Unfortunately, the study was unable to prove that a more rational system that allowed interns to get the rest they needed prevented most of the mistakes that lack-of-sleep were previously blamed for! The reason? Interns, regardless of the new limits, were still required to work ridiculously long-hours so the results could not be measured.

Now I know that it takes a lot to make it through medical school and through the rotations that are mandatory before becoming a certified MD. But come on, doctors are not superhuman. They are not immune to the effects, sometimes deadly effects, of sleep-deprivation. The human body requires sleep, as the medical profession is so fond of telling us. Why is it then that those whose business is the human body aren’t allowed to take care of their own?


J. H. Tanne (2008). Efforts to reduce US trainees’ hours were ineffective, study says BMJ, 337 (aug05 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a1140

J. R. White

J. R. White is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She has over five years of experience in education and pedagogy.
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