West's team used data from 430 internal medicine residents, who were surveyed quarterly from 2003 through 2008. The survey asked about their medical errors, if any, as well as quality of life, fatigue, burnout, depression and sleepiness.
Among the 378 doctors who answered questions about medical errors, 39 percent said they had made at least one major error.
West's group found a connection between these errors and fatigue. For every point increase in the fatigue score, doctors were 14 percent more likely to make a medical error. In addition, for every point increase in the sleepiness score, doctors were 10 percent more likely to err.
Medical errors were also linked to burnout, depression and overall quality of life, the researchers found.
Changes in how doctors are trained are making things better for doctors and safer for patients, said Dr. David J. Birnbach, a professor and vice provost of the University of Miami and associate dean and director of the UM-Jackson Memorial Hospital Center for Patient Safety at the Miller School of Medicine.
"We've known for a long time that fatigue in anyone is bad, and medical personnel who are very fatigued tend to make more errors," he said. "We in the United States have made a dramatic change in the way we train residents to limit the number of hours they work. That's regulated at a federal level."
But more needs to be done, Birnbach said. "If you are distressed or fatigued, either of them will impact on your ability to function optimally," he said. "At the end of the day, you are going to make more mistakes. Medical errors kill people."
Birnbach said he's concerned that, although residents are working shorter hours, no system exists to monitor whether they are tired or whether the hospital is complying with current regulation
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