12/13/2012 08:17 am ET

Protected Sleep Time For Medical Interns Could Decrease Fatigue, Increase Sleep Time: Study

Establishing a period of "protected sleep" for medical interns during their long overnight shifts could help them get more sleep and feel more well-rested the next day, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Pennsylvania, showed having a period of protected sleep -- five hours, between 12:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. -- during long shifts was linked with longer hours slept, fewer sleepless nights and decreased feelings of fatigue afterward, compared with not having a period of protected sleep.

The study included two trials; one of which involved medical interns at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the other which involved medical interns at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. About 100 medical interns and students participated in the study; some where assigned to do typical schedules that include overnight shifts where they had to work as many as 30 hours at a time, while others were assigned to the same shifts but had five hours of protected sleep built in. Their sleep was monitored via wrist actigraphs and reporting in sleep diaries.

The idea of having five hours of protected sleep is actually recommended by the Institute of Medicine for shifts longer than 16 hours, researchers noted. Medical interns are already required to only work up to 16 hours, according to rules implemented by the Accreditation Council for Graduation Medical Education, Kaiser Health News reported.

The researchers were quick to note that while requiring protected sleep did decrease fatigue in medical interns, it's still too soon to say whether that decreased fatigue translates to better outcomes for patients. However, past studies have linked fatigue with hospital errors (for more on those, click here).