Background: the Controversy about the FIRST and iCompare Housestaff Sleep Deprivation Trials
In early December, 2015 we posted about two clinical trials, FIRST and iCompare, designed to test the hypothesis that increasing housestaff sleep deprivation would improve care continuity, and thus somehow improve housestaff their performance and their patients' outcomes. Not only did the studies' hypothesis seem strange, but the studies seemed to violate fundamental rules of research ethics. Study investigators proceeded without obtaining formal informed consent from their house staff or patient research subjects, and did not allow any research subjects to opt out without penalty (e.g., house staff would have to quit their programs and find new ones to opt out). Finally, after Public Citizen and the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) complained about the studies, study defenders based their arguments on logical fallacies.
Why would distinguished medical educators behave so strangely? I hypothesized that medical educators could not imagine a way to improve care continuity without worsening trainees' sleep deprivation because all logical methods to do so would cost money. However, the managerialist executives to whom medical educators are now beholden shrink from increasing costs, other than their and their cronies' own compensation.
Two Psychiatric Residents Write about the Zero-Sum Game of Housestaff Training
Of course, the controversy, and particularly the complaints from AMSA and Public Citizen have been largely anechoic. But recently, the Washington Post published a commentary by two psychiatric residents on these issues. The authors, Jeffrey Clark and David Harari, confirmed many of my concerns about the sleep deprivation trials. They personally verified that the studies were done without informed consent from the research subjects.
The two of us and our patients were not provided informed consent before being enrolled in the iCompare trial.
The also confirmed that the trial investigators assumed they were working in a zero-sum framework.
We already know that extended shifts are dangerous. While many people rightfully suspect that current duty-hour limits aren’t improving outcomes, these studies err in assuming that the dangers of sleep deprivation must be traded for the dangers of shared patient care. Such a zero-sum framework won’t help us improve patient care or ensure the well-being of resident physicians.
To elaborate, the big problem with the duty hour restrictions is that while limiting the consecutive hours interns were supposed to work, this was not accompanied by any diminution of the total workload of housestaff at any one institution.
The standards published in 2011 by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education still allow hospitals to put residents through blistering 80-hour work weeks, while setting maximum shift lengths of only 16 hours for interns and 24 hours for more senior residents. Interns simply work shorter but more-frequent shifts. Doctors hand off patients to each other more regularly but without the training needed to manage these transitions effectively. And, by and large, hospitals have not responded to the changes with larger workforces, leaving residents no choice but to compress their daily work into shorter time periods.
It appears that housestaff were formerly sleep deprived not by their own choice, but because they were required to accomplish enormous amounts of work. The new duty-hour limits rearrangde their work into shorter shifts, without diminishing their total responsibilities. This does not seem like much of an improvement. The FIRST and iCompare trials were designed to test whether removing the new duty-hour limits, and thus increase sleep deprivation, would somehow help, which ignores the reason the new duty-hour restrictions were enacted. But simply shortening shifts accomplishes little as long as total workload remains the same.
Stimulants, An Even Worse Solution
So Clark and Harari confirmed my concerns about the FIRST and iCompare trials. But they added a new and in some ways even more dire concern. They uncovered an even more troubling response by medical academics to the zero-sum game which the managerialists ensure they are playing.
Adequate sleep is a fundamental physiological need. No amount of caffeine, prescription stimulants (as some physician leaders have advocated for) or 'alertness management strategies' can adequately compensate for acute and chronic sleep deprivation.
In an aside, Clark and Harari suggested the medical educators were advocating that housestaff use prescription stimulants to counteract the effects of sleep deprivation. This seems astonishing.
Yet a brief search revealed many informal accounts of medical students and housestaff using psychoactive prescription drugs to increase wakefulness. For example, see an account of a medical student using Focalin (dexmethylphenidate) here. Surveys, for example by Shy et al of emergency residents, suggest that use of stimulants by housetaff is rare,(1), but survey respondents may be unwilling to admit to such behavior, and emergency medicine residents may work shorter shifts than medicine and surgery residents.
Also, there is some other evidence that medical educators may encourage use of stimulants. At least one 2014 guest poster on the KevinMD blog stated
at one medical university, it is common knowledge among the student body that struggling individuals are encouraged to see a physician about their 'possible ADD,' or attention deficit disorder.
Furthermore, in 2009, Rose and Curry writing in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (2) noted that
extending the use of drug therapy to include resident with no identified sleep disorder to improve concentration and learning, improve wakefulness, enhance performance, and promote high-quality patient care (especially at night) raises a variety of concerns
without explaining who came up with that idea in the first place. However, in a response to a letter challenging their commentary, they denied (3) that they were advocating for such drug use, but never made clear who else was.
As we have noted, stimulants used for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are amphetamines or relatives of amphetamines, and have dangerous adverse effects. Encouraging, even subliminally, medical trainees to use such dangerous drugs to try to compensate for underfunding of training programs seems unethical, as the above letter writer pointed out.(3) That medical educators would resort to such an extreme solution suggests how they are now boxed in.
Conclusion: the Problem is Managerialism
While the ongoing trials of housestaff sleep deprivation have been largely anechoic, the recent Washington Post commentary by Clark and Harari make questions about why in the world medical academics would have set up such trials and continue to defend them even more stark.
But it seems that medical academics are boxed in, playing a zero-sum game. They may know that there housestaff are overworked and sleep deprived, a situation that endangers the housestaff and their patients. Yet every reasonable way one could imagined improving the situation would require spending more money, most likely to hire more people to spread the workload. Yet spending more money may be an anathema to the generic managers to whom medical academics report. Spending more money would decrease revenue, and for many managerialist managers, increasing revenue, not patient outcomes or physician performance, is the prime directive.
We have frequently posted about what we have called generic management, the manager's coup d'etat, and mission-hostile management. Managerialism wraps these concepts up into a single package. The idea is that all organizations, including health care organizations, ought to be run people with generic management training and background, not necessarily by people with specific backgrounds or training in the organizations' areas of operation. Thus, for example, hospitals ought to be run by MBAs, not doctors, nurses, or public health experts. Furthermore, all organizations ought to be run according to the same basic principles of business management. These principles in turn ought to be based on current neoliberal dogma, with the prime directive that short-term revenue is the primary goal.
To conclude, as I did on my first post on the sleep deprivation studies.... I hope that the two studies create the degree of controversy they deserve, and that the federal government promptly starts investigating honestly and thoroughly. I further hope that this unseemly episode causes medical educators to rethink the cozy or at least conflict averse relationships they have with their managerialist leaders.
True health care reform would restore health care leadership that understands health care and medicine, upholds the health care mission, is accountable for its actions, and is transparent, ethical and honest.
1. Shy BD, Portelli I, Nelson LS. Emergency medicine residents' use of psychostimulants and sedatives to aid in shift work. Am J Emerg Med 2011; 29: 1034-36. Link here.
2. Rose SH, Curry TB. Fatigue, countermeasures and performance enhancement in resident physicians. Mayo Clin Proc 2009; 84: 955-57. Link here.
3. Paparodis R. Fatigue, countermeasures and performance enhancement in resident physicians. Mayo Clin Proc 2010; 85: 300 - 303. Link here.