Fatigue is putting nurses and patients at risk

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Nurses and health staff are putting their own health, and the health of their patients, at risk by working too many hours and suffering from fatigue.

Fiona McDonald, an associate lecturer in the Faculty of Law, has completed an extensive study, looking at the different laws in place to regulate working hours across six countries, and said it was a very complex issue.

“The working hours of nurses… [is] a major issue which puts the health of patients and workers at risk,” Ms McDonald said.

“After a point being so tired has a similar effect to being drunk, so overworked health professionals are at a higher risk of making poor judgements, their reaction time slows and they face increased difficulties completing routine tasks,” she said.

“For the patient, it is concerning that their lives may be in the hands of people who are seriously fatigued.

“For doctors and other health professionals, it can also have significant effects on their mental and physical health, as well as on relationships with colleagues, patients and family.”

“For the patient, it is concerning that their lives may be in the hands of people who are seriously fatigued.”

Ms McDonald said there had been a number of cases in recent years where patient deaths, or serious injuries, were put down to bad judgement calls caused by doctor fatigue.

However, she said that because of the complexity of the health system, the solution was not as easy as simply cutting down hours, although this had proved to be an effective solution in other countries, when done gradually.

In Australia, she said a staff shortage in health care meant it would be difficult to simply reduce the hours worked by doctors and nurses.

“They are already short-staffed, so the issue becomes how to reduce those gaps,” she said.

“While mistakes may occur because of fatigue, they may also occur when there are multiple shift changes – mistakes often occur as a result of poor communication during handover.”

This research was conducted by the Queensland University of Technology. You can find their original media release here.

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