Residents, attending physicians and medical students are all used to getting by on little sleep. But the time-honored tradition of sleep deprivation and long hours has come under some criticism.
Now with the mindset changing, researchers wanted to know if getting just a little more sleep could make a big difference.
As a nation, Americans are sleep-deprived. Many of us exist on six hours of sleep or less. While numerous studies have been done on the restorative power of napping, researchers decided to test this theory on a group notorious for working without sleep: medical doctors in training, like Dr. Hilary Faust.
"When I do rotations now where I'm doing 30-hour shifts, getting an hour of sleep or even half an hour of sleep makes a huge difference," said Faust, who participated in the study.
"There's a large amount of research showing that sleep deprivation can adversely affect performance and safety," said Dr. David Dinges, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
University of Pennsylvania researchers put their residents to the test. Instead of a two-hour turnaround time, every other month one group received a protected three-hour sleep period during their shift. No phones. No pagers. The other group worked a standard schedule and only slept if time allowed.
The protected sleep participants experienced higher cognitive performance on the job.
"They slept earlier, longer and less disturbed," said Dinges. "We didn't completely give them a full night's sleep but even the three hours, the 50-percent more sleep they got, was beneficial."
The National Sleep Foundation says if you can't get protective sleep built into your work shift, a "power nap" can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents.
A NASA study on military pilots and astronauts found a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34 percent and alertness by 100 percent.
"Residents are no different than anyone else: They need sleep, and if you give them a safe, secure, protected opportunity to take it where they don't have to feel guilty or be disturbed repeatedly, and they can actually sleep, they will," said Dinges.
"I actually feel great right now. I got an hour of sleep last night so I feel pretty good," said Hilary Faust.
One expert says more hospitals are looking into regulating the sleep schedules of doctors in training so they can function better when they're on call.