top of page
Image by Danielle Cerullo

The Silent Peril: The Profound Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Surgery Residents

Surgery residency is an arduous and demanding journey filled with long hours, intense pressure, and critical decision-making. Among the many challenges that surgery residents face, sleep deprivation stands as a significant concern. In this extra-long blog post, I will explore the multifaceted effects of sleep deprivation on surgery residents, shedding light on its consequences and potential strategies to mitigate its impact.

I started surgery residency in 2007, which was the first year of implementing the 80 hour work week rule for interns and residents. If a hospital was caught with residents violating this rule, they could lose their accreditation (which happened to a neighboring hospital close to where I trained).

Residency is the BEST-WORST thing I've ever done. I made some great friends and colleagues but it was incredibly demanding. On average, I probably got four hours of sleep per night. There were some that were better than others. I would pass out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

There were a few times I fell asleep at a stoplight while driving home, after working a 30 hour shift. Sleep deprivation is a real thing. It affects us in numerous ways. I was living on crappy food and sugary energy drinks just to function. There was NO exercise; only taking the stairs and the occasion kettlebell swings in our call room.

I now have an Oura ring, which is the best sleep tracker on the market (not a sponsor!). I wish I had this back in residency, just to see and evaluate my sleep (or lack there of). I know now if I get a bad night of sleep, that my numbers are wrecked and I definitely feel it.

It was amazing once I graduated residency and actually slept like I was supposed to, on average 8 hours per night. I felt so good and refreshed and thought to myself "Wow, is this what normal people feel like when they sleep??"

I. The Sleep Deprivation Epidemic in Surgical Residency

Demanding Work Schedules

  • Surgery residents frequently endure grueling work hours, often exceeding 80 hours per week, resulting in inadequate sleep opportunities.

  • The demanding nature of surgical training and the need for continuous patient care contribute to sleep deprivation.

  • Reference: Philibert I. (2005). N Engl J Med. 352(3), 250-257.

Disrupted Circadian Rhythms

  • Irregular and unpredictable working hours disrupt the natural circadian rhythms of surgery residents, impairing their ability to achieve restorative sleep.

  • Frequent shift rotations and overnight on-call duties further challenge the body's internal clock.

  • Reference: Barger LK, et al. (2005). N Engl J Med. 352(2), 125-134.

Impact on Cognitive Function

  • Sleep deprivation negatively affects cognitive function, leading to impaired attention, memory deficits, decreased decision-making capabilities, and reduced situational awareness.

  • These cognitive impairments can have serious consequences for surgical performance and patient safety.

  • Reference: Lockley SW, et al. (2004). JAMA. 291(1), 19-31.

II. Patient Safety Concerns

Increased Surgical Errors

  • Sleep-deprived surgery residents are more prone to making mistakes, including technical errors, judgment lapses, and medication administration errors.

  • Studies have shown a correlation between sleep deprivation and increased surgical complications.

  • Reference: Papp KK, et al. (2008). Ann Surg. 248(2), 300-306.

Impaired Performance during High-Stress Situations

  • Sleep-deprived surgery residents exhibit reduced vigilance, slower reaction times, and compromised psychomotor skills, particularly in high-pressure situations.

  • This can impede their ability to respond effectively to emergencies and perform complex surgical procedures.

  • Reference: Taffinder N, et al. (1998). Lancet. 352(9135), 1191-1194.

Adverse Effects on Professionalism and Communication

  • Sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, impaired interpersonal skills, and reduced empathy, negatively impacting interactions with patients, colleagues, and healthcare teams.

  • Communication breakdowns can jeopardize patient care and compromise teamwork.

  • Reference: Arora VM, et al. (2006). JAMA. 296(9), 1054-1062.

III. Health and Well-being of Surgery Residents

Increased Risk of Physical and Mental Health Issues

  • Sleep deprivation contributes to physical health problems such as fatigue, chronic sleepiness, and increased susceptibility to infections.

  • It also heightens the risk of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and burnout among surgery residents.

  • Reference: Balch CM, et al. (2011). Ann Surg. 254(1), 1-8.

Negative Impact on Personal Life

  • The demanding schedules and sleep deprivation experienced by surgery residents often result in a compromised work-life balance, straining personal relationships and hindering personal pursuits.

  • Reference: Patel MS, et al. (2009). Ann Surg. 250(3), 463-471.

IV. Strategies to Mitigate the Impact of Sleep Deprivation

Implementing Work Hour Restrictions

  • Regulatory bodies and institutions can enforce work hour limits for surgery residents to ensure adequate rest and mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation.

  • Reference: Nasca TJ, et al. (2010). JAMA. 304(11), 1256-1265.

Promoting Sleep Education and Awareness

  • Educating surgery residents about the importance of sleep hygiene, sleep disorders, and strategies for optimizing sleep can foster a culture of prioritizing rest.

  • Reference: Vela-Bueno A, et al. (2008). Sleep Med Rev. 12(6), 493-506.

Providing Well-being Support Programs

  • Institutions should offer comprehensive well-being support programs that include mental health resources, counseling services, and opportunities for stress reduction and self-care.

  • Reference: Shanafelt TD, et al. (2018). N Engl J Med. 378(22), 2161-2170.


Sleep deprivation poses a significant threat to the well-being, performance, and patient safety of surgery residents. Addressing this issue requires a comprehensive approach that includes regulatory measures, education, and support systems. By acknowledging the impact of sleep deprivation and implementing strategies to mitigate its effects, we can foster a healthier, safer, and more sustainable environment for surgery residents.

1 view0 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page