Are Medical Residents Dangerously Fatigued?

By Kim Smiley

Medical residents work extremely long, tiring schedules on their arduous path to becoming physicians.  Possible consequences of this demanding schedule have long been debated.  Many wonder if it’s safe to have someone who has been on duty for 24 hours straight treating patients.

This issue can be explored by building a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and laying out the different causes that contributed to an issue to the cause-and-effect relationships.  In this example, there is potential risk to patients and to the medical residents themselves.  Patients may be at risk because fatigued medical residents are treating patients and fatigued people are more likely to make mistakes, increasing the chance of a medical error that affects patient safety.  Residents are fatigued because they work long hours and the current regulations allow 80 hour work weeks.

Additionally, the health of the residents themselves may be at risk.  A poll by the Mayo clinic found that 11 percent of medical residents had been in an auto accident.  The poll also found that 8 percent of residents reported having at least one blood or body fluid exposure due to fatigue or stress, potentially exposing them to any number of diseases.  Sleep deprivation itself can also have long term health consequences increasing the likelihood of a number of illness including heart disease and gastrointestinal problems.

While there is ongoing debate on whether residents are still working too many hours, there have been changes made to reduce resident fatigue. In 2003, residents were limited to 80 hours per week by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.  Prior to this move, there was essentially no limit to the hours a resident could log.  This issue isn’t black and white and there are also many who argue that the limits have had negative unintended consequences.  Fewer hours in the hospital mean that residents see fewer patients and have less experience when they become independent physicians.  Limiting shifts also increases the potential for each patient to be seen by more doctors and for essential information to be lost during turnovers.  This isn’t an issue with a clear answer and any additional restrictions in the hours a resident is allowed to work will need to be mitigated with effective methods of turning over patient care and assurances that residents are getting adequate training.

This is a good example to demonstrate the important of taking an investigation past determining that the problem is caused by “human error”.  Medical errors are caused by human errors, but the most useful part of the investigation usually comes from asking why the error was made.  Was the person overly fatigued?  Was the procedure confusing?  Would the process go smoother with a phase to verify information or a checklist?  An investigation shouldn’t be stopped at “human error”; it should be taken a few steps farther to see what may have contributed to the error and what changes may help prevent a similar error in the future.

Helping the Blind See

By ThinkReliability Staff

Retinitis pigmentosa is an eye disease which results in the degeneration of photoreceptor cells in the retina.  Although it is uncommon, it is estimated that 100,000 Americans suffer from it, but a new device may be able to help them.

In normal sight, the light from a signal enters the eye and contacts photoreceptor cells in the retina.  The photoreceptor cells generate electrical impulses, which are sent to the brain by the optic nerve, allowing the vision to be interpreted by the brain.  In retinitis pigmentosa, their photoreceptor cells deteriorate, short-circuiting the vision process, eventually to the point where there is no vision at all.

To assist in our understanding of the normal vision process, and the problems with it resulting from retinitis pigmentosa, we can use a process map, or a visual step by step diagramming of any process that is examined as part of a root cause analysis.  Although in this case the process is a biological one, diagramming any process that is not producing the desired results can provide important information to develop solutions that allow the process to  again provide the desired results.

With advanced retinitis pigmentosa, all vision can be lost.   Although researchers continue to attempt to discover ways to restore as much vision as possible, any improvement can improve quality of life.  A device called the Argus II, which was approved by the FDA for use in the US on February 14, 2013, aims to help those with retinitis pigmentosa – and possibly in the future those who are blind from macular degeneration.  The device was approved in Europe in 2011 for any type of outer retinal degeneration.

The device uses a camera, video process and electrodes which do the processing work normally performed by photoreceptor cells and the optic nerve.  The electrode provides a pixelized light/dark pattern to the brain, which can allow sufferers to  see outlines and differentiate between light and dark.  Again, a process map can help demonstrate how the device works to bypass the normal vision process.

To view a process map of normal vision, and partial vision provided by the Argus II device, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read more.

Hiding in Plain Sight

By ThinkReliability Staff

Before you read the rest of this blog, click here and take a look at the radiograph. Did you notice anything  . . . odd?  If not, you’re in good company.  The image shown was used in a study with trained radiologists.  A vast majority – 83% – did not notice the gorilla in the upper right hand corner of the lung.

Yep, that’s right.  There’s a gorilla in that scan.  Did you miss it too?

This study was based off a study performed in 1999 that drew attention to the “inattentional blindness” effect.  Essentially, it means if you’re busy doing something that requires a lot of concentration, there’s a lot you can miss.  This new study attempted to determine whether people who were “trained for looking” – i.e. radiologists – would be better at noticing something “off”.  Actually, they were worse, based on the percent of people who missed the gorilla in the original study – 50% – being far less than the percent of radiologists – 83% – that missed the gorilla in the radiograph.  What’s particularly disturbing is that what the radiologists were looking at was a radiograph, something they’ve been specifically trained to evaluate.  To be fair, they were specifically asked to look for cancerous nodules . . . not large, hairy animals.

What are the broader implications of this study?  Well, the first is acknowledgement of the possibility of missing the seemingly obvious.  This is not, of course, limited to radiologists.  Examples of this happening are seen all over healthcare – when alarms are assumed to be malfunctioning, rather than actually indicating an issue that needs to be dealt with.  Or when sponges are left inside a patient.  It’s certainly not because the surgical staff isn’t concentrating.  Or when you have a patient seemingly ready for surgery . . . only it’s not for him.  When you have a patient who’s ready to go, and a staff who’s ready to go, it is only to easy to assume that – because everything LOOKS right, it is.

The next question, of course, is what can be done to deal with “inattentional blindness”, now that we know it exists for anyone, regardless of specialized training?  Strategies that have been developed to deal with all kinds of medical errors can also help with inattentional blindness.  Taking time to catch your breath, then going back to look again – such as occurs when using a time-out prior to surgery – can give you a fresh look that is more likely to catch those gorillas.  It can also help to use more sets of eyes, by bringing in different staff members from different areas of expertise.  Checklists can also help to focus on the obvious – forcing a check on a patient’s identity, for example.

Much like in the gorilla studies – where people overestimated their ability to notice outlying events – medical personnel who have effectively incorporated time-outs and/or checklists have been surprised at the number of potential events that have been caught by these aids.  Obviously, they’re not a panacea, or a replacement for a well-trained, caring staff.  So, the next time something seems “off”, take another look.  Maybe it’s a gorilla.

Is the NFL Getting More Dangerous?

By Kim Smiley

Player injuries in the National Football League (NFL) have been making headlines for years now.  One of the questions that have been asked is whether increases in players’ weight and speed have been making the game more dangerous.

A Cause Map, an intuitive method for performing a root cause analysis, can be used to analyze this issue.  The first step when building a Cause Map is to determine how the overall goals are impacted.  In this example, the main focus will be player safety, but there are factors worth considering such as the negative publicity this issue has generated for the NFL.  There is also a whole lot of money in play with a lawsuit that more than 4000 players have filed against the NFL for allegedly covering up life-altering brain injuries.

The Cause Map is built by taking one of the impacted goals and asking “why” questions.  Why is there a safety concern?  There is the potential for severe neurological trauma because players are suffering brain injuries on the field.  The obvious reason this happens is because it’s football.  Players are hit and hit hard as part of perfectly legal and allowed tackles.  It’s how the game is played.    Players may also be hurt during illegal plays, such as a helmet-to-helmet contact, which are more likely to cause brain damage.  One extremely hard hit can end a career, but more and more evidence is showing that milder, repeated hits may also cause life-altering brain injuries.  Another potential cause that might be worth exploring is the protection that players wear.  They are still getting hurt despite wearing helmets and pads.  Maybe different equipment could help prevent some of these injuries.

The protective gear has improved and the tackling rules have been modified, but the basic game has remained the same since 1920 when the NFL began with one notable expectation.  The players themselves have changed radically over the decades.  In the 1920, the average lineman was 190 pounds.  The average lineman these days weighs 300 pounds.  Despite the extra 100 plus pounds, the average lineman has also gotten faster.  A faster, heavier player hits with more force and slamming into another body with more force probably isn’t healthier for anybody involved.

Continuing the Cause Map, it makes sense to ask why today’s players are so much bigger and quicker.  Specialization of training and nutrition programs surely play a role in the evolution of the player’s body.  There is also speculation that performance enhancing drugs are being used and complaints about the lack of the effective testing for substances such as human growth hormone.

This is an issue that still needs research.  A better understanding of how impacts are affecting brains is needed so that the full scope of the issue is known.  If the problem is as large as it is suspected, better ways of protecting these players need to be found.