Lack of sleep from very long hospital shifts can make young doctors behind the wheel as dangerous as drunks, researchers found.

Doctors in training were more than twice as likely to get in a car crash while driving home after working 24 hours or longer, compared with when they worked shorter shifts, according to a study by Harvard Medical School (news – web sites) researchers.

The study also found that after extended shifts young doctors were about six times more likely to report a near-miss accident and that they sometimes fell asleep while driving.

“A lot of the lay public doesn’t realize that twice a week most young doctors in this country are forced by hospitals to work these marathon shifts of 30 hours in a row,” said senior researcher Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and head of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“If they’re going to require these trainees to work such long hours, they should at least provide them with transportation home.”

The study, reported in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine (news – web sites), was done by some of the same Harvard Medical School researchers who just last fall reported that sleep-deprived doctors made one-third more medical errors during their many long shifts, compared with shorter ones.

The new study included monthly surveys the researchers collected from 2,737 first-year interns in hospitals around the country from April 2002 through May 2003. More than two-thirds of the drowsy doctors drove home from work.

The data, including police accident reports, showed that each extended work shift per month increased chances of a car crash by 16 percent while commuting home and raised the risk of any crash by 9 percent.

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