The Danger Medical Students Face When They Don’t Get Enough Sleep

Sleep Deprivation In Medical Students

As a medical student, you know that you will be experiencing plenty of sleepless nights and 4am wake-ups – it just comes with the territory.  What many students are not realizing is that there is a very fine line between harmless insomnia, and potentially dangerous sleep deprivation.

“Now that I’m board-certified in sleep medicine, I realize that I wasn’t just dead tired -I was dead wrong.”- Steven Park, M.D.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine conducted an international study on the sleep habits of medical students, and found that of the one-third of the general population that reports some form of sleep deprivation, medical students are one of the most vulnerable subgroups to suffer from poor sleep.

Unfortunately for these hard-working students, a well-known side effect of lack of sleep is a decrease in academic performance, with studies proving that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation and lower grades. As important as G.P.A’s are to any student, medical students also need to be aware of the risks associated with not getting a good night of sleep.

Studies found that physicians-in-training are more susceptible to the following when working long hours without first getting adequate sleep:

■ Make 36% more serious medical errors than those whose scheduled work is limited to 16 consecutive hours.

■ Make five times as many serious diagnostic errors.

■ Have twice as many on-the-job attentional failures at night.

■ Suffer 61% more needlestick and other sharp injuries after their 20th consecutive hour of work.

So why does sleep deprivation hit residents so hard?

Though an estimated 50-70 million Americans have what is categorized as a chronic sleep disorder, not many understand the science behind sleep problems. There are four factors to explain the occurrences:

  1. Sleep Inertia

Our level of alertness is minimal the first 10-15 minutes after waking up, meaning that residents are not performing at full capacity when having to make decisions after being suddenly being awoken.

  1. Circadian Rhythms

Our hypothalamus programs us to be most alert during the day, and prepared to rest during the night, so long night shifts can throw off this balance.

  1. Acute Sleep Deprivation

The cycle of working all day, and then continuously working a shift all night, is a form of acute sleep deprivation.

  1. Chronic Partial Sleep Deprivation

Consistently getting less than the recommended 8.5 hours sleep for weeks or months at a time will lead to chronic sleep deprivation. The same study noted above found that, “young adult residents working extended-duration shifts, sleep about 2 hours less than this amount on average per day, guaranteeing a chronic buildup of sleep pressure.”

Though obtaining 8 hours of sleep may not always be possible, there are other ways to help prevent sleep deprivation. No food or drink 4 hours before bed, turning off electronics, and getting those circadian rhythms in line by avoiding sleeping in too late are all effective methods to get the shut-eye you need.

Sierra Kennedy
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