When people fall acutely ill, they deserve a non-sleep deprived doctor—but they also deserve an adequately-trained doctor. There are only so many hours to the day, and so in medical education a resident’s need for self-care must be balanced against the need for maximum clinical exposure. Since 2003, when restrictions to resident duty hours were first enacted, there has been disagreement about how to best navigate the tension. Recently, the debate resurfaced when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) proposed a change to the policy governing resident duty hour limits. Perhaps the most surprising part of the announcement was that their proposal increased the time limit that interns (first year residents) can care for patients without sleep. The policy ACGME enacted in 2011 had capped interns at 16 hours on-call, and the proposal increases the limit to 28 hours.
In my prior post I raised arguments for and against the proposed changes to duty hour limits. Here I will unpack the conclusions and limitations of the best empirical evidence available to ACGME: the Flexibility in Duty Hour Requirements for Surgical Trainees (FIRST) Trial. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 2016, the FIRST Trial randomized 117 surgical residency programs nationwide to have either “standard” duty hour policies, which included the current 16-hour cap on interns, or “flexible” policies, which reflect the recent ACGME proposal. Data were collected from July 2014 to June 2105. The sister-study involving medical residencies nationwide has regrettably not yet published.
The FIRST Trial warrant close attention because, like a Rorschach test, different people see different things in the data. For instance, take the finding that neither group caused significantly more or less harm to patients, though shorter duty hours were associated with more handoffs of patient responsibility. Taken at face value, these results neither clearly bolster nor contradict the proposed duty hour changes; yet they are used to both support and undermine the tentative changes to ACGME policy. The study’s first author told NPR that, “We believe the trial results say it’s safe to provide some flexibility in duty hours.” On the other hand, an editorial published in NEJM alongside the study argues that, “The FIRST Trial effectively debunks concerns that patients will suffer as a result of increased handoffs and breaks in the continuity of care.” Is there a right conclusion to draw from the study? Continue reading