Study: Even 24 hours later, surgeons who drink more prone to mistakes

Hospitals or healthcare organizations may want to consider putting rules into place on how much alcohol a surgeon may consume on the day before working in the operating room, suggests a new study in the Archives of Surgery.

"Historically, the medical profession has had a reputation for high rates of alcohol consumption," wrote the researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. "It is likely that surgeons are unaware that next-day surgical performance may be compromised as a result of significant alcohol intake."

To study the situation, a virtual reality system--and not real patients--were used. To evaluate the degree of that impairment, the researchers invited eight surgeons and 16 students out for a dinner: Half the students and the eight surgical professionals were encouraged to drink as much they wanted until they felt drunk. The rest of the students were not allowed to drink.

The following day, all participants went to a lab to perform laparoscopic surgerical procedures. At 9 a.m., the participants who drank made about 19 errors on average, while those who did not drink made eight errors. This difference had not been reported before the night out.

The errors gradually faded over the day. However, a higher rate of errors still was observed among those who had been drinking--even by 4 p.m. During that time, though, only one of the surgeons had detectable blood alcohol levels.

While the study was too small to allow the researchers to say how long the surgeons should abstain from drinking before performing surgery, they suggested that, "given the considerable cognitive, perceptual, visuospatial, and psychomotor challenges posed by modern image-guided surgical techniques," abstaining from alcohol the night before operating may be a "sensible consideration for practicing surgeons."

For more information:
- see the Archives of Surgery abstract
- read the Los Angeles Times article
- read the MedPage Today article

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