The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has revisited its standards for resident duty hours and determined that some modifications should be made, mostly for first-year residents. All other residents should still be subject to an 80-hour work week and up to 24 hours of continuous duty.
The 16-member ACGME task force that wrote the standards will review public comments and make any modifications considered necessary before July 2011, when the new standards will go into effect.
The original ACGME standards, established in 2003, have been the subject of much consternation in the medical community, with opinions differing over whether they have been too restrictive or too loose to properly protect patients and ensure a good quality of life for residents.
According to the latest report, written by Dr. Thomas J. Nasca, Dr. Susan H. Day, and Dr. E. Stephen Amis Jr. on behalf of the ACGME task force, the 2003 standards had the following three “problematic” elements, as identified by the educational community and the public:
▸ The limits on duty hours may have created a shift mentality among residents, which tends to conflict with the duty to serve patients.
▸ Many academic programs began focusing on meeting the duty hour restrictions, perhaps at the expense of education.
▸ The 80-hour work week, with up to 24 hours of continuous duty, was seen by many as compromising patient safety.
In 2008, the Institute of Medicine took a hard look at the ACGME standards and, among other things, recommended that no residents should exceed 16 hours of continuous duty.
The ACGME convened the task force to consider the IOM recommendations. One of the biggest challenges, according to the authors, was to reconcile the IOM's suggestion for an across-the-board restriction on duty hours with the continuing plea from academic programs that duty hours needed to be tailored to each specialty (N. Engl. J. Med. 2010 [doi:10.1056/NEJMsb1005800]).
For surgery, in particular, it would be difficult—and contrary to learning—to have a resident leave in the midst of a procedure because his or her duty hours had been reached.
The ACGME panel also had to weigh whether there was sufficient evidence to show that working more than 16 hours or up to 30 hours continuously led to more medical errors, as has been suggested by many critics of the duty hour standards.
According to the ACGME panel, the data thus far indicate only that first-year residents are more prone to mistakes as a result of sleep deprivation. Therefore, the task force urged a new paradigm for the first year of residency, whereby residents cannot be on duty for longer than 16 hours continuously and should have 10 hours off and 8 hours free of duty between their scheduled duty periods. First-year residents are not allowed to moonlight, and they must have direct, in-house, attending-level supervision.
All residents are allowed to work up to an additional 4 hours to facilitate patient handoffs—an area of concern for patient safety.
The panel decided not to tailor duty hours to specialties “because studies have not shown that the safety effect of current standards varies with specialty.”
The IOM had also criticized the ACGME for not properly enforcing the duty hours. The task force said that enforcement is an “inherent” challenge, partly because there are some 9,000 accredited programs. However, the ACGME is now undertaking annual site visits and analyzing whether institutions can comply. Eventually, the organization will give each institution a report on its compliance status and recommendations for resolving problems.
Wake Up Doctor, a coalition of public interest and patient safety groups that has been pushing the ACGME to further restrict resident hours, said that the new standards don't go far enough. The group gave the ACGME an “F” for failing to comply with the IOM recommendation that continuous duty be restricted to 16 hours for all residents.