Last year, Public Citizen and other groups filed a petition – the second in 10 years – calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take over responsibility for enforcing medical resident work hours from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). This past September, the Obama administration denied our groups’ petition on the grounds that the ACGME is the appropriate entity to handle the issue, an identical argument to one put forward by the Bush administration nine years earlier to justify the denial of our first petition.
Both petitions were filed as a result of the long-standing failure of the ACGME to adequately protect residents from the proven deleterious effects of long work hours. Six years after the ACGME implemented the first limits on resident work hours in 2003, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded an exhaustive 12-month review examining the existing system of medical training and the evidence regarding fatigue, resident physicians, and patient safety. The IOM concluded that the 2003 ACGME rules were not adequately protective and that major changes were needed, including a limit of 16 hours in a row for all resident work shifts.
In response, the ACGME updated its guidelines in 2010, but unfortunately, the new rules failed to incorporate the majority of the IOM’s recommendations. The rules limited medical interns ― first-year residents ― to 16-hour shifts but inexplicably allowed all other residents to continue to work up to 28 hours straight. There is no biological rationale to support the notion that residents suddenly become able to withstand the adverse effects of extended shifts upon completing their first year of residency. In addition, the new rules, in permitting averaging over several weeks to achieve the 80-hour weekly limit, continued the practice of allowing residents to work 100 or more hours in certain weeks.