Literature Review

Sleep-deprived physicians less empathetic to patient pain?



Physicians who are sleep deprived have less empathy for patients who report pain – and they prescribe fewer analgesics, new research suggests.

In the first of two studies, resident physicians were presented with two hypothetical scenarios involving a patient who complains of pain. They were asked about their likelihood of prescribing pain medication. The test was given to one group of residents who were just starting their day and to another group who were at the end of their night shift after being on call for 26 hours.

Results showed that the night shift residents were less likely than their daytime counterparts to say they would prescribe pain medication to the patients.

In further analysis of discharge notes from more than 13,000 electronic records of patients presenting with pain complaints at hospitals in Israel and the United States, the likelihood of an analgesic being prescribed during the night shift was 11% lower in Israel and 9% lower in the United States, compared with the day shift.

“Pain management is a major challenge, and a doctor’s perception of a patient’s subjective pain is susceptible to bias,” coinvestigator David Gozal, MD, the Marie M. and Harry L. Smith Endowed Chair of Child Health, University of Missouri–Columbia, said in a press release.

“This study demonstrated that night shift work is an important and previously unrecognized source of bias in pain management, likely stemming from impaired perception of pain,” Dr. Gozal added.

The findings were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

‘Directional’ differences

Senior investigator Alex Gileles-Hillel, MD, senior pediatric pulmonologist and sleep researcher at Hadassah University Medical Center, Jerusalem, said in an interview that physicians must make “complex assessments of patients’ subjective pain experience” – and the “subjective nature of pain management decisions can give rise to various biases.”

Dr. Gileles-Hillel has previously researched the cognitive toll of night shift work on physicians.

“It’s pretty established, for example, not to drive when sleep deprived because cognition is impaired,” he said. The current study explored whether sleep deprivation could affect areas other than cognition, including emotions and empathy.

The researchers used “two complementary approaches.” First, they administered tests to measure empathy and pain management decisions in 67 resident physicians at Hadassah Medical Centers either following a 26-hour night shift that began at 8:00 a.m. the day before (n = 36) or immediately before starting the workday (n = 31).

There were no significant differences in demographic, sleep, or burnout measures between the two groups, except that night shift physicians had slept less than those in the daytime group (2.93 vs. 5.96 hours).

Participants completed two tasks. In the empathy-for-pain task, they rated their emotional reactions to pictures of individuals in pain. In the empathy accuracy task, they were asked to assess the feelings of videotaped individuals telling emotional stories.

They were then presented with two clinical scenarios: a female patient with a headache and a male patient with a backache. Following that, they were asked to assess the magnitude of the patients’ pain and how likely they would be to prescribe pain medication.

In the empathy-for-pain task, physicians’ empathy scores were significantly lower in the night shift group than in the day group (difference, –0.83; 95% CI, –1.55 to –0.10; P = .026). There were no significant differences between the groups in the empathy accuracy task.

In both scenarios, physicians in the night shift group assessed the patient’s pain as weaker in comparison with physicians in the day group. There was a statistically significant difference in the headache scenario but not the backache scenario.

In the headache scenario, the propensity of the physicians to prescribe analgesics was “directionally lower” but did not reach statistical significance. In the backache scenario, there was no significant difference between the groups’ prescribing propensities.

In both scenarios, pain assessment was positively correlated with the propensity to prescribe analgesics.

Despite the lack of statistical significance, the findings “documented a negative effect of night shift work on physician empathy for pain and a positive association between physician assessment of patient pain and the propensity to prescribe analgesics,” the investigators wrote.


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