Cost Implications of Reduced Work Hours and Workloads for Resident Physicians

Published In: The New England Journal of Medicine, v. 360, no. 21, May 21, 2009, p. 2202-2215

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2008

by Teryl K. Nuckols, Jay Bhattacharya, Dianne Miller Wolman, Cheryl Ulmer, Jose J. Escarce

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BACKGROUND: Although the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) limits the work hours of residents, concerns about fatigue persist. A new Institute of Medicine (IOM) report recommends, among other changes, improved adherence to the 2003 ACGME limits, naps during extended shifts, a 16-hour limit for shifts without naps, and reduced workloads. METHODS: The authors used published data to estimate labor costs associated with transferring excess work from residents to substitute providers, and we examined the effects of our assumptions in sensitivity analyses. Next, using a probability model to represent labor costs as well as mortality and costs associated with preventable adverse events, the authors determined the net costs to major teaching hospitals and cost-effectiveness across a range of hypothetical changes in the rate of preventable adverse events. RESULTS: Annual labor costs from implementing the IOM recommendations were estimated to be $1.6 billion (in 2006 U.S. dollars) across all ACGME-accredited programs ($1.1 billion to $2.5 billion in sensitivity analyses). From a 10% decrease to a 10% increase in preventable adverse events, net costs per admission ranged from $99 to $183 for major teaching hospitals and from $17 to $266 for society. With 2.5% to 11.3% decreases in preventable adverse events, costs to society per averted death ranged from $3.4 million to $0. CONCLUSIONS: Implementing the four IOM recommendations would be costly, and their effectiveness is unknown. If highly effective, they could prevent patient harm at reduced or no cost from the societal perspective. However, net costs to teaching hospitals would remain high.

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