Wearables Spotlight Health Challenges Facing Medical Residents

Real-time data suggest interns lost three hours of sleep per week.

The plight of medical residents has long been documented, but until recently the data have been subjective and retrospective. Wearable technologies, however, have enabled real-time, objective analysis of the health problems facing interns — and the early findings are striking.

In a recent study, researchers found that 33 first-year interns at the University of Michigan Medical School lost roughly two hours and 48 minutes of sleep per night and saw an 11.5 percent decrease in physical activity and a 7.5 percent decrease in mood rating after beginning their residency.

What’s more, this study was the first to objectively explore the association between the three factors, finding that short sleep duration typically foreshadowed a worse mood the next day, which presaged short sleep that night.

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“Critically, our findings add to prior studies suggesting that long work hours, insufficient sleep and circadian-challenging shift schedules may create an insalubrious environment for intern mental health,” the study authors wrote.

Interns wore Fitbit devices on their wrists to measure their sleep patterns and total steps, while a digital mood-tracking system called Mood247.com monitored how they felt each day. The study spanned two months prior to the start of their residency and the following six months, accounting only for residents who adhered to the protocols.

Although the use of wearable devices provided more objective data than gathered in prior studies, researchers said it’s likely that interns’ sleep durations were actually shorter than recorded, due to measurement limitations.

Still, the results prompted investigators to call for additional research into restructuring schedules to better align with sleep-wake timing, which could potentially reduce “shift work disorder” and “intern drowsiness.”

University of Michigan researchers have taken this study to the next level, with an ongoing examination of the sleep, work and physical habits of more than 2,000 new physicians, with the intent of better understanding the effects on mental health. Again, participants are using Fitbit devices to track the data.

Study authors hope the intern health examination will arm teaching hospitals with the knowledge they need to better coordinate residents’ schedules.

The tech-driven analyses come at a time when physician burnout is hammering doctors and health systems. It’s possible, then, that the use of wearables to gauge providers’ mental health could extend beyond residency programs and into clinics across the country.

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