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Australian public hospital doctors 'tired and dangerous'

Armen Hareyan's picture

This appalling system of hospitals in Australia has been going on for ages. No-one seems willing to stop it -- on cost grounds presumably

Overworked young doctors are close to burn-out from working 20-hour shifts and are getting less than six hours sleep a night. Patients' lives are being put in "danger", with stressed young doctors confessing their "unsafe" workloads were affecting their quality of medical care. These were two key findings in a national survey of 1000 young doctors by the Australian Medical Association released yesterday.

It paints a distressing picture of junior medical staff trying to cope in hospital systems that are underfunded and understaffed. Almost half believe their excessive workload runs the risk of compromising patient safety, while a third reported they regularly worked unsafe hours. Fifty hours a week is common with short turnaround times between shifts, while some said 90 to 100-hour weeks were not uncommon. Alcohol was another worrying method young doctors were using to cope with stress and fatigue, with the survey finding almost 10 per cent drank daily.

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Sydney's Westmead Hospital intensive care resident Katherine Jeffrey, who confessed to working 60 hours a week, said more younger doctors were urgently need to improve quality care and prevent patient tragedies. "There is a danger of mistakes if you don't monitor yourself and if you don't get the sleep," said the 35-year-old critical care resident, who lives at Cheltenham. "Generally most of us are doing 50-60 hours a week which also included rostered overtime."

Dr Jeffrey, who said she sailed to ease her stress, said sleep-deprived young doctors, aged between 26 and 35, were also taking out their frustration on other medical staff. "They are short with the nurses, they're short with the patients - they are intolerant of little things." Dr Jeffrey confessed to once being awake for a 21-hour shift, which was "rare", due to a doctor shortage. "I could feel that I was fatigued."

AMA Doctors In Training Council chairwoman Dr Alex Markwell said it wasn't unusual for young doctors to be on call 24 hours a day for three weeks straight. "We do need urgent assistance in the public health system," she said. Dr Markwell said the survey showed junior doctors were "really struggling to meet all of the demands that are put upon them. Doctors are people too, they are not superhuman," she said. Dr Markwell suggested establishing an internal clinic for medical staff inside hospitals.

AMA president Dr Rosanna Capolingua said the problem must be addressed by governments by having more doctors in hospitals, safer working hours and better rostering.

The author of this story is Dr. John Ray, who blogs at Socialized Medicine.