Nurses Switching Shifts: Does a Lack of Sleep Put Patients at Risk?

This post was authored by Sarah Keogh and posted to The Eye Opener on April 22nd, 2011.

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Many of us take it as a given that if we end up in a hospital, we will be taken care of by an around-the-clock group of health care professionals. These doctors, nurses and other staff will be awake and alert to care for us and prevent any potential problems during our stay. However, how many of you have thought about how this impacts these health care professionals on their days off? I know that I had not thought too much about this issue. I had taken for granted that if I or a loved one were hospitalized that the professionals involved in their care would be at least well rested enough to avoid major medical errors.

I have read lots of different reports about all of the rule changes for doctors in training regarding how many hours they can work in a week or at one time. I had never before read a report regarding the impact of work schedules on nurses. While I knew that most nurses worked 12-hour shifts, I have to admit that I had not thought about how this impacted their own lives or patient care. That changed when I read a recent article in medicalnewstoday.com. This article discusses a study published in Public Library of Science One that was conducted “…to examine the strategies that night nurses use to adjust between day and night sleep cycles.”

What seems obvious in retrospect, but that I had never really considered before, is that nurses who work the night shift (typically 7 pm until 7 am – or “7p to 7a” as they like to call it), normally do not stay up all night in their “non-work” lives. On their days off, they often want to live a more typical life with daytime awake hours. The ramification of this is that they need to switch their sleep schedule back and forth several times throughout the week. Can you image having to do that yourself and still perform your job properly?

The medicalnewstoday.com article explains that “[a]s many as 25 percent of hospital nurses go without sleep for at least 24 hours in order to adjust to working on the night shift, which is the least effective strategy for adapting their internal, circadian clocks to a night-time schedule.”

The “First Shift” Effect

So, the first issue in this revelation is that as many as a quarter of hospital nurses are going without sleep for at least 24 hours when adjusting to working the night shift. I shudder to think of how many nurses around the country are therefore working at least their first night shift every week while on hours 12-24 of not having slept.

While others may function better than I do without sleep, I don’t think that I would ever feel comfortable being cared for by a nurse who had not slept in the prior 12 hours before starting their shift. It seems to me that this opens up the possibility for many medical errors and patient injuries.

The Circadian Clock Effect

The second issue I had was that this is also “the least effective strategy for adapting their internal, circadian clocks” – which I take to mean that if a nurse who has not slept for that first shift is not bad enough – it also does not work very well to help them be adjusted and well rested for the rest of the week.

If the concerns about the health of the public being cared for by tired nurses is not bad enough, this can also be quite damaging to the health of the nurses themselves. These selfless individuals who are caring for others are – frankly – at risk.

A number of previous studies have found that repeated incidence of circadian misalignment the condition that occurs when individuals’ sleep/wake patterns are out of sync with their biological clocks is not healthy. Jet lag is the most familiar example of this condition. Circadian misalignment has been associated with increased risk of developing cardiovascular, metabolic and gastrointestinal disorders, some types of cancer and several mental disorders.

So, these nurses are risking their own health in addition to potentially the health of their patients.

Just how important is sleep?

Just how much does sleep matter? Well, another article from medicalnewstoday.com recently looked at sleep in a very different context. It examined a study from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, which showed that “…automobile crash rates among teen drivers…” were dramatically higher in otherwise similar school districts where teens started school earlier in the morning (a difference of about 1 hours and twenty minutes). While there is no proof yet that this connection is causal, there certainly seems to be a strong connection even after adjusting for other possible factors. The article also mentions that:

Another study in the April issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that delaying school start times by one hour could enhance students’ cognitive performance by improving their attention level and increasing their rate of performance, as well as reducing their mistakes and impulsivity. The Israeli study of 14-year-old, eighth-grade students found that the teens slept about 55 minutes longer each night and performed better on tests that require attention when their school start time was delayed by one hour.

While teens and teenage behavior can be different from that of adults (thank goodness), I still think that these studies highlight some of the key issues of sleep deprivation. Adults seem likely to also make more mistakes, lack attention and act more impulsively when functioning on less sleep.

However, a review of a study from Nursing Economics entitled “Shift Work in Nursing: Is it Really a Risk Factor for Nurses’ Health and Patients’ Safety” suggests that other factors put nurses’ health at greater risk and that shift work does not impact the number of medical errors. The study was conducted in Israel in 2003. It is important to note that this study looked at nurses working alternating 8-hour shifts and did not directly look at the issue of nurses not sleeping in order to switch between 12-hour shifts.  The investigators in the study were surprised by some of their findings:

Shift work and organizational outcomes. In the present study, we investigated the impact of sleep disturbances on shift nurses and on two organizational outcomes: errors and incidents and absenteeism from work. Based on our literature review (Morshead, 2002; Muecke, 2005; Westfall-Lake, 1997), we expected that “non-adaptive shift nurses” would report on more involvement in errors and adverse incidents as compared to “adaptive shift nurses.” We also assumed that non-adaptive nurses, who by definition have more sleep-related complaints, would have higher absenteeism rates due to illness compared to their adaptive colleagues. Neither of our hypotheses was supported by the results of this study.

Instead the study found that:

It appears that gender, age, and weight are more significant factors than shift work in determining the well-being of nurses. Moreover, nurses who were identified as being non-adaptive to shift work based on their complaints about sleep were found to work as effectively and safely as their adaptive colleagues in terms of absenteeism from work and involvement in professional errors and accidents.

What do you think? Would you want a nurse who has been up for 24 hours to be caring for you or your loved one? Should it be the nurse’s decision whether they are alert enough for work? Should rules be created for nurses just as they were for physicians in training? What about nurses who enjoy the flexibility and freedom allowed by this sort of schedule? Have you worked as a nurse? What are your experiences and feedback on whether this is a problem?

Related Post – you may want to read:

A Surgeon’s Sleep Deprivation and Elective Surgery – Not a good (or safe) combination.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a Perspective on December 30, 2010, that screams common sense and should be embraced as a starting point to implement some new patient-safety standards of practice. Place yourself in the position of a patient getting ready to undergo an elective (i.e. non-emergency) surgical procedure. You’re wheeled into the operating room for your surgery and are greeted by your surgeon in the process. Read more…


 

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