To Leave or to Lie?

Medical educators worry that the 2003 Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) duty-hour rules (DHR) have encouraged a “shift work” mentality among residents and eroded their professionalism by forcing them either to abandon patients when they have worked for 80 hours or lie about the number of hours worked. In this qualitative study, the authors explore how medical and surgical residents perceive and respond to DHR by examining the “local” organizational culture in which their work is embedded.

In 2008, researchers conducted three months of ethnographic observation of internal medicine and general surgery residents as they went about their everyday work in two hospitals affiliated with the same training program, as well as in-depth interviews with 17 residents. Field notes and interview
transcripts were analyzed for perceptions and behaviors in regard to beginning and leaving work, reporting duty hours, and expressing opinions about DHR.

The respondents did not exhibit a “shift work” mentality in relation to their work. The study found that residents: (1) occasionally stay in the hospital in order to complete patient care tasks even when, according to the clock, they are required to leave, because the organizational culture stresses performing work thoroughly; (2) do not blindly embrace noncompliance with DHR but are thoughtful about the tradeoffs inherent in the regulations; and (3) express nuanced and complex reasons for erroneously reporting duty hours, suggesting that reporting hours worked is not a simple issue of lying or truth telling.

Concerns about DHR and the erosion of resident professionalism resulting from the development of a “shift work” mentality likely have been overstated. Instead, the influence of DHR on professionalism is more complex than the conventional wisdom suggests and requires additional assessment.