The U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling that resident physicians are properly classified as workers - not students - for the purpose of paying Social Security taxes should mean that residents get the same protections afforded to other workers, according to Public Citizen, a nonprofit public interest advocacy organization.

“This includes a good night’s sleep,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, Director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

The group hopes the Supreme Court ruling will persuade OSHA to respond to a petition asking the agency to regulate the hours that resident physicians can work and to reduce shifts that can be as long as 30 hours three times a week to a maximum of 16 hours per shift. The petition was submitted in September of 2010 by the Wake Up Doctor coalition, of which Public Citizen is a member, along with the Committee of Interns and Residents/SEIU Healthcare; the American Medical Student Association; Dr. Charles Czeisler, Baldino professor of sleep medicine and director of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School; Dr. Christopher Landrigan, assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine at Harvard Medical School; and Dr. Bertrand Bell, professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“Exhausted resident physicians are at increased risk of being in a car crash and suffering from depression, pregnancy complications and needle sticks - not to mention the susceptibility to medical errors, which can adversely affect patients, research shows,” said Wolfe.

“We hope that the court’s ruling in Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research v. United States is a sign of progress to come in the rights of resident physicians.”

Public Citizen notes that the federal government already regulates work hours in a variety of industries, including the highway, aviation, railroad and maritime transportation industries, because of the role that fatigue plays in transportation safety. In none of these industries are workers allowed to work hours as long as those worked by residents.

The petition sent to OSHA is available at: http://www.citizen.org/hrg1917. For information on the Wake Up Doctor coalition, visit: http://www.wakeupdoctor.org.