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Work Hour Restrictions – A Painful Gift to Medicine

When I completed my overnight shift and left the Medical ICU the morning of July 1, I raised my arms victoriously. I uttered, “Finally, internship is done!” I may have been one of the last to speak such words.

As of July 1, 2011, intern year forever changed. In the world of medicine the first year of residency, or intern year, is when doctors earn their stripes. Traditionally it is the most demanding year in a decade-long quest to become a practicing physician. But this year, the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) mandated that interns can no longer work more than 16 hours straight, and must have 10 hours off between shifts. Second- and third-year residents can still work 28-hour shifts, but no more 30-hour shifts for interns.

To the outsider, this may seem like a common sense change that would only improve patient safety.  Within the medical field, however, this change is arguably the most controversial in the history of medical education.

Advocates believe these duty-hour modifications will decrease medical errors and improve unacceptable working conditions for residents. ACGME officials still believe that residents should be able to handle the vigorous hours and workload, but believe launching the least experienced physicians — new interns — into those demanding conditions just days after medical school is inappropriate and unsafe. As well, the general public generally favors the new changes.

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