BACKGROUND: The effects on patient safety of eliminating extended-duration work shifts for resident physicians remain controversial. METHODS: We conducted a multicenter, cluster-randomized, crossover trial comparing two schedules for pediatric resident physicians during their intensive care unit (ICU) rotations: extended-duration work schedules that included shifts of 24 hours or more (control schedules) and schedules that eliminated extended shifts and cycled resident physicians through day and night shifts of 16 hours or less (intervention schedules). The primary outcome was serious medical errors made by resident physicians, assessed by intensive surveillance, including direct observation and chart review. RESULTS: The characteristics of ICU patients during the two work schedules were similar, but resident physician workload, described as the mean (±SD) number of ICU patients per resident physician, was higher during the intervention schedules than during the control schedules (8.8±2.8 vs. 6.7±2.2). Resident physicians made more serious errors during the intervention schedules than during the control schedules (97.1 vs. 79.0 per 1000 patient-days; relative risk, 1.53; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.37 to 1.72; P<0.001). The number of serious errors unitwide were likewise higher during the intervention schedules (181.3 vs. 131.5 per 1000 patient-days; relative risk, 1.56; 95% CI, 1.43 to 1.71). There was wide variability among sites, however; errors were lower during intervention schedules than during control schedules at one site, rates were similar during the two schedules at two sites, and rates were higher during intervention schedules than during control schedules at three sites. In a secondary analysis that was adjusted for the number of patients per resident physician as a potential confounder, intervention schedules were no longer associated with an increase in errors. CONCLUSIONS: Contrary to our hypothesis, resident physicians who were randomly assigned to schedules that eliminated extended shifts made more serious errors than resident physicians assigned to schedules with extended shifts, although the effect varied by site. The number of ICU patients cared for by each resident physician was higher during schedules that eliminated extended shifts.
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