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Hungover surgeons error-prone, even with no alcohol in system

Surgeons may not be aware that next-day surgical performance can be compromised by significant alcohol intake.


Next time you're about to go under the knife, you might want to ask what your surgeon was up to the previous night.

Hungover surgeons are more likely to botch the job even if they have no detectable traces of alcohol in their blood, a study has found.

Researchers in the United Kingdom told eight surgeons and 16 medical students to go out partying, and then measured their surgical skills the next day on a virtual-reality system that mimics laparoscopy (keyhole surgery). The surgeons who indulged made 50 per cent more errors than usual, even though only one had measurable blood-alcohol levels, Reuters reports.

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"It is likely that surgeons are unaware that next-day surgical performance may be compromised as a result of significant alcohol intake," writes Anthony Gallagher of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and colleagues in the Archives of Surgery.

That's a "well, duh!" conclusion for high-performance athletes and students cramming for final exams.

But surgeons are more prone to hazardous drinking than other physicians, according to a 2005 Norwegian study. And researchers at Yale University found that alcohol is the most common addiction among physicians overall.

But booze isn't the only thing to worry about before you go out cold.

Sleep deprivation impairs co-ordination and precision as much as alcohol consumption does, Business Week reports. Inadequate shut-eye affects surgeons' clinical performance so much that authors in the New England Journal of Medicine recently advised doctors to not perform surgery unless a patient gives written consent after being informed of their sleep-deprived status.

For surgeons, is it time for full disclosure?

Should surgeons have strict guidelines to control their sleeping and drinking habits? How would you go about asking whether your surgeon was partying the night before?

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly stated that hungover surgeons made twice as many errors as usual. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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