Physicians' attentional performance following a 24-hour observation period: do we need to regulate sleep prior to work?

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Abstract

Background

The tradition of physicians working while sleep deprived is increasingly criticised. Medical regulatory bodies have restricted resident physician duty-hours, not addressing the greater population of physicians. We aimed to assess factors such as sleep duration prior to a 24-hour observation period on physicians' attention.

Methods

We studied 70 physicians (mean age 38 years old (SD 10.8 years)): 36 residents and 34 faculty from call rosters at the University of Alberta. Among 70 physicians, 52 (74%) performed overnight call; 18 did not perform overnight call and were recruited to control for the learning effect of repetitive neuropsychological testing. Attentional Network Test (ANT) measured physicians' attention at the beginning and end of the 24-hour observation period. Participants self-reported ideal sleep needs, sleep duration in the 24 hours prior to (ie, baseline) and during the 24-hour observation period (ie, follow-up). Median regression models examined effects on ANT parameters.

Results

Sleep deprivation at follow-up was associated with reduced attentional accuracy following the 24-hour observation period, but only for physicians more sleep deprived at baseline. Other components of attention were not associated with sleep deprivation after adjusting for repetitive testing. Age, years since medical school and caffeine use did not impact changes in ANT parameters.

Conclusions

Our study suggests that baseline sleep before 24 hours of observation impacts the accuracy of physicians' attentional testing at 24 hours. Further study is required to determine if optimising physician sleep prior to overnight call shifts is a sustainable strategy to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation.

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