After having their work days limited to 16 hours for the past six years, first-year medical residents in teaching hospitals like Greenville Memorial will once again be permitted to work 24-hour shifts — plus four hours for paperwork — beginning in July.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which instituted the change, says it’s necessary for continuity of care and the education of residents — physicians often must work extended periods to admit, stabilize and hand off critically-ill patients.

But outraged consumer and patient safety groups say the change will lead to more medical errors as over-worked and bleary-eyed residents succumb to the effects of sleep deprivation.

Medical error is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer, accounting for more than 250,000 deaths each year, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

And each year some 12 million adults, or one in 20 people, are misdiagnosed, resulting in serious problems such as delayed cancer treatments or unnecessary treatment for nonexistent conditions, according to research by Dr. Hardeep Singh of Baylor’s DeBakey VA Medical Center for Innovation in Quality, Effectiveness, and Safety.

Patient safety activist Helen Haskell, who founded the Columbia-based Mothers Against Medical Error after the death of her 15-year-old son Lewis Blackman as a result of medical error, said increasing work hours will subject the residents to sleep deprivation that will affect their abilities.

“People can persuade themselves of all sorts of things. But in the end, human biology trumps all,” she said. “Young doctors are not immune to biology. There are serious patient safety concerns here.”

Haskell said the conventional thinking is that working long hours makes doctors more capable of dealing with emergencies and other medical cases. But the problem with that, she said, is that patients are put at risk in the bargain.

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