The Danger Medical Students Face When They Don’t Get Enough Sleep
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Acute Sleep Deprivation
The cycle of working all day, and then continuously working a shift all night, is a form of acute sleep deprivation.
- 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.