Sleep No More: Sleep Deprivation, Doctors, and Error or Is Sleep the Next Frontier for Public Health?

[Cross-Posted at Prawfsblawg]

How often do you hear your students or friends or colleagues talk about operating on very little sleep for work or family reasons? In my case it is often, and depending on the setting it is sometimes stated as a complaint and sometimes as a brag (the latter especially among my friends who work for large law firms or consulting firms). To sleep 7-8 hours is becoming a “luxury” or perhaps in some eyes a waste – here I think of the adage “I will sleep when I am dead” expresses that those who need sleep are “missing out” or “wusses.” My impression, anecdotal to be sure, is that our sleep patterns are getting worse not better and that many of these bad habits (among lawyers) are learned during law school.

One profession that has dealt with these issues at the regulatory level is medicine. In July 2011, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) – the entity Responsible for the accreditation of post-MD medical training programs within the United States – implemented new rules that limit interns to 16 hours of work in a row, but continue to allow 2nd-year and higher resident physicians to work for up to 28 consecutive hours. In a new article with sleep medicine expert doctors Charles A. Czeisler and Christopher P. Landrigan that just came out in the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, we examine how to make these work hour rules actually work.

As we discuss in the introduction to the article

Over the past decade, a series of studies have found that physicians-in-training who work extended shifts (>16 hours) are at increased risk of experiencing motor vehicle crashes, needlestick injuries, and medical errors. In response to public concerns and a request from Congress, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted an inquiry into the issue and concluded in 2009 that resident physicians should not work for more than 16 consecutive hours without sleep. They further recommended that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Joint Commission work with the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) to ensure effective enforcement of new work hour standards. The IOM’s concerns with enforcement stem from well-documented non-compliance with the ACGME’s 2003 work hour rules, and the ACGME’s history of non-enforcement. In a nationwide cohort study, 84% of interns were found to violate the ACGME’s 2003 standards in the year following their introduction.

Whether the ACGME’s 2011 work hour limits went too far or did not go far enough has been hotly debated. In this article, we do not seek to re-open the debate about whether these standards get matters exactly right. Instead, we wish to address the issue of effective enforcement. That is, now that new work hour limits have been established, and given that the ACGME has been unable to enforce work hour limits effectively on its own, what is the best way to make sure the new limits are followed in order to reduce harm to residents, patients, and others due to sleep-deprived residents? We focus on three possible national approaches to the problem, one rooted in funding, one rooted in disclosure, and one rooted in tort law. I would love reactions to our proposals in the paper, but wanted to float the more general idea in this space.

Obesity is a good example of something that through concerted action moved from the periphery to safely within the confines of public health thinking and even public health law. Is it time to do the same for sleep? Should we stop valorizing sleeping very little in our society? Should we be thinking about corporate and public policies directed to improving sleep pattern? What might that look like? One thought I have is about encouraging telecommuting to reduce commuting time, sleep rooms in offices? Of course, on the parenting sleeplessness sides many of the solutions are social support.  What about what we tell and model for our students? I try to impart to my students that extra hours spent studying well into the night will have diminishing marginal returns, but who knows if that message is imparted. I also worry that with the number of journals, moot courts, clubs, etc, we encourage our students to join at law school that we are enablers of sleeping too little and perpetuating the “superman” myth (and I do wonder about the gendered component here)… Real men don’t sleep. And then they perform badly at their jobs and get into car crashes….

I. Glenn Cohen

I. Glenn Cohen is the James A. Attwood and Leslie Williams Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and current Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center. A member of the inaugural cohort of Petrie-Flom Academic Fellows, Glenn was appointed to the Harvard Law School faculty in 2008. Glenn is one of the world's leading experts on the intersection of bioethics (sometimes also called "medical ethics") and the law, as well as health law. He also teaches civil procedure. From Seoul to Krakow to Vancouver, Glenn has spoken at legal, medical, and industry conferences around the world and his work has appeared in or been covered on PBS, NPR, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, the New York Times, the New Republic, the Boston Globe, and several other media venues. He was the youngest professor on the faculty at Harvard Law School (tenured or untenured) both when he joined the faculty in 2008 (at age 29) and when he was tenured as a full professor in 2013 (at age 34).

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