Adequate pain management is one of the biggest challenges of the modern healthcare system. Physician perception of patient subjective pain, which is crucial to pain management, is susceptible to a host of potential biases. Here we explore the timing of physicians’ work as a previously unrecognized source of systematic bias in pain management. We hypothesized that during night shifts, sleep deprivation, fatigue, and stress would reduce physicians’ empathy for others’ pain, leading to underprescription of analgesics for patient pain relief. In study 1, 67 resident physicians, either following a night shift or not, performed empathy for pain assessment tasks and simulated patient scenarios in laboratory conditions. As predicted, following a night shift, physicians showed reduced empathy for pain. In study 2, we explored this phenomenon in medical decisions in the field. We analyzed three emergency department datasets from Israel and the United States that included discharge notes of patients arriving with pain complaints during 2013 to 2020 (n = 13,482). Across all datasets, physicians were less likely to prescribe an analgesic during night shifts (compared to daytime shifts) and prescribed fewer analgesics than generally recommended by the World Health Organization. This effect remained significant after adjusting for patient, physician, type of complaint, and emergency department characteristics. Underprescription for pain during night shifts was particularly prominent for opioids. We conclude that night shift work is an important and previously unrecognized source of bias in pain management, likely stemming from impaired perception of pain. We consider the implications for hospitals and other organizations employing night shifts.
|Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
|Published - 5 Jul 2022
Bibliographical notePublisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 the Author(s).
- pain management
- shift work
- sleep deprivation