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For young doctors, one of the rights of passage is working long shifts during their residencies. Having to spend days at a time at the hospital trained student doctors how to prepare for their future careers. Students would need to find time to catch a quick nap, and learn how to work when they had little time to rest.

While the shifts may be physically demanding, it allowed student doctors to get an opportunity to see several different types of injuries and illnesses. Having had the chance to both participate and observe in the treatment plans for a wide range of conditions allowed student doctors to be ready when they faced these issues on their own.

Unfortunately, the long hours led to mistakes – in correctly diagnosing injuries as well as proscribing proper treatment plans. This caused officials with the Committee of Interns and Residents, the union for student doctors, to create new rules that limit the hours a student doctor may work. This union works with student doctors in major public hospitals, including facilities in New Jersey. In the past, students frequently worked 100-hour work weeks, sometimes having shifts that ran at least 30 consecutive hours.

The union previously had managed to impose limits that restricted a student doctor to a maximum shift length of 16 hours. Proponents of the change hope that these restrictions will reduce the number of mistakes that occur, which often lead to medical malpractice cases. Student doctors will no longer be forced to work past the point of exhaustion, and will have the time to learn more about medical conditions that may be affecting their patients.

However, the patients may be the ones who suffer the most due to these changes. When a student doctor’s 16-hour shift is up, he or she leaves the hospital. This means that a new doctor will have to take over, which could lead to gaps in patient care. Additionally, when the doctor is practicing professionally, he or she will not have been exposed to as many issues as student doctors have in the past. As more doctors finish their residencies, the true impact of these changes on patient safety will become clearer.

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