Sleepy surgeons can't handle surprises

Surgeons who are sleep deprived can perform tasks they've already been trained in, but their brains have to work harder to problem solve during unexpected events, compared to their well-rested counterparts, according to a study published in the American Journal of Surgery.

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine asked two groups of medical students to use a virtual reality simulator for two days. The students could practice 45 minutes a day, some who could then get a full night's rest (six hours or more) and others who only got less than two hours of sleep. They retook the test the second day. Researchers found that both groups could perform a previously learned skill, as well as a new simulated surgical task, even those who were moderately sleep deprived. But researchers noticed a difference in the "stress on brain workload," according to the research announcement.

"[I]n order to achieve the same level of performance, sleep-deprived subjects demonstrated increased cognitive workload compared to their rested counterparts," research fellow Jonathan Tomasko said.

The study could suggest possible negative effects on patient care from sleepy surgeons. Although the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education implemented regulations that first-year residents can't work more than 16 hours without sleep, the study leaves the door open for future research on how sleep deviation may affect unexpected events during surgery.

To learn more:
- see the research announcement
- here's the study abstract

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