Perspective: Limiting resident work hours is a moral concern

  • Higginson J
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The author outlines the cross-cultural and widespread expectation that the moral character of physicians is built on dual possession of skill and compassion. The details of the moral makeup of physicians are often hotly debated in the biomedical literature. Despite a lack of consensus regarding the required aspects of character, the author demonstrates that little debate exists that at a minimum physicians should possess not only knowledge but also a willingness to care for and comfort patients. The primacy of the patient in the physician's life is reflected in the panoply of oaths taken by new physicians despite great variability in other aspects of these oaths. The author details recent worrisome reports demonstrating the erosion of medical trainees' empathy and compassion by long work hours. Further, the continued linkage of these attitude changes and fatigue to poor medical outcomes is a call to action. Changes enacted by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to reduce resident work hours are insufficient to achieve the goal of improved patient care while promoting moral development among resident physicians. The debate regarding resident work hours is often framed as an idealistic discussion of placing patients first. However, residents are used as an inexpensive labor force, and efforts to curtail this usage would have a significant economic impact. Economic concerns play a larger part in decision making than is generally discussed. The author calls for further alterations of resident work schedules to improve patient care and ensure the preservation of the moral ethos of medicine.

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  • Jason D. Higginson

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