A new UCLA study finds that US teaching hospitals implementing new limits on hours that physicians-in-training can work will result in additional spending of up to $1.3 billion a year. The reforms are intended to reduce medical errors by physicians-in-training at teaching hospitals that result from fatigue due to long work hours.

In July, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), the national body charged with overseeing the training of junior doctors as they complete their specialty training, put into effect strict duty-hour limits on interns and medical residents and instituted related changes to the training environment.

Under the new guidelines, first-year residents, also known as interns, can work a maximum of 16 hours continuously and must have on-site supervision at all times. More senior residents can work up to 28 consecutive hours when they are “on call” in all but exceptional circumstances. Under previous guidelines, both interns and senior residents could work up to 30 consecutive hours.

Changes to the training environment include educating residents and faculty members about fatigue and patient safety and providing transportation or sleep facilities after extended shifts.

The study estimates that teaching hospitals nationwide will have to spend an aggregate $400 million to $1.3 billion each year to carry out the new hour limits and related changes. The study adds that some hospitals might have trouble coming up with the money to do it.

“Given the effort and money that teaching hospitals are investing in implementing these new duty-hour limits, many people hope that these changes will reduce the numbers of patients being harmed by medical errors, as well as the number of residents falling asleep at the wheel after long hours on duty,” said Teryl Nuckols, MD, associate professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Our analysis shows that if the reforms are successful, they are likely to be a good value for the money from the societal perspective. However, some teaching hospitals may struggle with the cost of implementing the reforms because there is no funding for doing so.”

The study found that duty-hour changes will cost at least $177 million annually nationwide, based on the most optimistic assumptions about how changes might be implemented. However, under less optimistic assumptions, they could cost up to $982 million annually nationwide. The associated changes to the training environment will cost an additional $204 million annually nationwide.

The report further states that when considering the costs of the reforms and the benefits of reducing harmful medical errors, the reforms are likely to be considered cost-effective to society if medical errors fall by as little as 3%—a relatively modest decline. However, teaching hospitals would lose money by implementing the reforms unless errors decline to a greater degree—at least 7.2% to 25.8%, depending on the cost of implementing the duty-hour changes.

The researchers note that the ACGME’s duty-hour limits are less expensive than those previously proposed by the Institute of Medicine, which would have cost $1.7 billion.

The findings have been published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.