Nurse Fatigue Increases Risk Of Medical Errors

Nurses routinely work long shifts and odd hours to keep hospitals and care facilities staffed. Some registered nurses work swing shifts switching between daytime hours and overnight shifts. In addition to long shifts, many also work voluntary overtime. In some states, mandatory overtime is also an expectation.

Past research has consistently found that long hours and insufficient breaks can be dangerous for patients. Medical errors are three times as likely when nurses work shifts longer than 12 hours. It becomes a challenge of keeping nurses rested, but keeping hospitals staffed appropriately when there is a looming shortage of nurses.

States seek to reduce fatigue-induced medical mistakes

Sixteen states across the country, including Oregon, have addressed the issue by putting into place limits on mandatory overtime for nurses. In Oregon, a hospital cannot require a nurse to work more than 48 hours in a week or more than 12 hours during a 24-hour period. Other states prohibit mandatory overtime altogether.

In November 2012, Massachusetts joined this group by passing a similar law that limits nursing shifts to 12 hours within a 24-hour period. Hospitals will not be able to make nurses work beyond their scheduled shifts. The Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United President Donna Kelly-Williams said that, “Forcing nurses to work when they are exhausted endangers patients and leads to costly, preventable medical errors and complications.” The law will combat hospital practices of increasing mandatory overtime.

Restricting mandatory overtime

A study completed last year as part of the RN Work Project and published online in the journal Nursing Outlook looked at the affects of restricting mandatory overtime. They wondered if nurses still worked the same amount of overtime, but on a voluntary basis.

The researchers found that in states with mandatory overtime rules, nurses on average worked about 50 fewer minutes each week when compared with their colleagues in states without regulations. Still more than half of the nurses reported working voluntary overtime in a typical workweek.

Laws that restrict mandatory overtime have an impact on behavior. In addition to reducing the number of nursing errors, these laws have the added benefit of providing nurses with a schedule they can count, which in turn increases nurse retention.

The restrictions on mandatory overtime are one way to reduce the number of fatigue-related nursing errors. Even with laws restricting mandatory overtime in place, there will still be mistakes that occur. A wrong site surgery, prescription mix-up or hospital fall may have happened because of the negligence of a nurse. Following any suspicious injury while hospitalized, contact an Oregon medical malpractice attorney who can review your case and inform you of possible remedies.