Study: Medical errors more likely when nurses work long, unpredictable shifts

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Nurses routinely working long or unpredictable hours are more likely to cause medical errors, or near errors, according to a new study in the July/August edition of the journal Health Affairs.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found that the risk of making an error greatly increased when hospital nurses had to work shifts that were longer than 12 hours, more than 40 hours per week or significant overtime.

The study's authors called for curtailment of routine use of 12-hour shifts and also said overtime around such shifts should be stopped.

Researchers examined detailed logbooks from 393 registered nurses around the country who worked full-time in hospitals. Data collected on 5,317 work shifts revealed that in nearly 40 percent of the cases, nurses worked at least 12.5 consecutive hours.

The likelihood of making an error was three times higher when nurses worked shifts lasting at least 12.5 hours. Working overtime increased the odds of making at least one error, regardless of how long the shift was originally scheduled.

During the data-gathering period, there were 199 errors and 213 near errors reported. More than half of the errors (58 percent) and near errors (56 percent) involved medication administration.