Saving doctors

I write this post filled with sadness and anger. Earlier this week a friend and colleague of mine passed away in a car accident after working a 14 hour shift. She had just graduated from Medical school and was in her 2nd week of internship so really it is meant to be a time of excitement and discovery for her.

There are so many elements wrong with the event that occurred. She was young, smiley, happy-go-lucky and her doctor career was just beginning. The most terrifying component of all this is driving home after a 14 hour shift is actually “the norm” for us junior doctors. It happens regularly and me and my colleagues wave it off because “it just is” and “the way things are.”

I’ve had friends who had to drive across rural Victoria in the middle of the night; the only thing keeping them awake is coffee and having all their windows down so the cold air would keep them fresh. I’ve had friends who have fallen asleep at the wheel and luckily only mounted a curb. Unfortunately I’m all too familiar with the “short blackouts” during a car ride.

The most I’ve been rostered on is 14 hours in a day, but this doesn’t take into consideration that I worked 14 hours the previous day and 12 hours before that. If I’m lucky I may grab something to eat or go to the toilet- but you forget about these normal bodily functions when you’re worried about someone else’s and the people who page you know nothing about breaks. These rostered hours do not relate to reality, because most of the time we stay back to finish up the growing paperwork or to review a patient we’re concerned about as it’s unfair to leave the cover person who is covering 100+ patients they don’t really know. At the end of the day, we’re expected to drive home and be fresh for the following day. Few weeks ago I finished work at midnight and then was called in to work at 8am the same day. It is expected.

I know it’s not as bad as it used to be. My consultants when they were junior doctors worked for 3 days without sleep (I’m not kidding)! The unfortunate thing is, working long hours and unpaid overtime is seen as a “learning experience.” Every day of my life as a doctor is a learning experience… but compromising our health and our patients isn’t.

It’s ironic how the people who are meant to care for the sick are not well looked after themselves. The system takes advantage of our empathy. The administration staff know that even though we’re rostered on until 4:30pm we don’t leave the hospital until 7 or 8pm. I’ve seen my Registrar stay around the hospital until early hours of the morning and he’s right on time for ward rounds the same morning at 8am!

To the people who don’t know, to them doctors are just money grabbing individuals who don’t have time for patients. The thing is, most people who want to be doctors want to “help people” as clichΓ© as it sounds. If they’re in it for the money they won’t last (believe me). We don’t get paid overtime most of the time and there are lists of other patients we need to see in a day- some of them very sick. To the people who do know, they believe this is the culture of our profession “work and save lives” until what… until another doctor dies? Is this really a system which is helping our patients? A hospital system run by tired and overworked individuals (who are only human), is that the kind of people we want treating patients?

Maybe we can shorten the hours, 12 hours max. Maybe we can have designated lunch or tea breaks, like the nurses do. Or maybe if someone works for 12 hours or more they should be given a taxi voucher to go home.

This shouldn’t be the norm. Doctors are not superhuman! I know nothing is going to budge in the near future. But it needs to change, before another life is lost… whether it’s in the form of a doctor or a patient …

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1 comment
  1. Thao said:

    That’s very tragic to hear, especially since she worked so hard to become a doctor. I know a few years ago in the United States, they started the 80-hour workweek limit for residents, but I don’t know how well they follow through with it. Or if they just work undocumented hours due to peer pressure to not be the one who’s “slacking”. The taxis voucher sounds like a viable option. It’s safer for everyone.

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