Thousands of junior doctors took strike action for 24 hours this week for better working conditions and safer working hours. The Green Party supports their cause, and particularly their claims to reduce the number of days worked from up to 12 days in a row or seven night shifts in a row. Doctors need proper time off to recuperate properly.
Currently, District Health Boards can require junior doctors to work 65 hours or more a week in back to back shifts. From a workplace safety perspective, this is incredibly dangerous as you have fatigued doctors making decisions that could compromise their patients,’ as well as their own, safety.
Junior doctors were surveyed recently and the results exposed the hazardous impacts of working long hours. The survey results showed that:
- 1162 junior doctors reported being so fatigued from working long hours they were worried a clinical mistake had been made;
- 821 junior doctors reported being so concerned by a potential mistake they have made whilst on duty, they have called back to the hospital to ask someone to check up;
- 939 having almost fallen asleep at the wheel when driving home;
- 275 reported actually fallen asleep at the wheel driving home after working these hours.
These health and safety issues are not confined to just the junior doctors and their patients. Other health professionals who work with them also feel their impact. Resident (junior) doctors do a lot of the groundwork and have to make a lot of decisions around matters of life and death at hospitals. If being fatigued means they don’t make good decisions, other health professionals – like nurses for example – also have to deal with the consequences.
Unreasonably long working hours and being constantly tired takes its toll on junior doctors’ mental health too. There’s the stress and worry about making mistakes while fatigued and restless nights from disrupted sleeping patterns due to night shifts – and this all contributes to burnout. A 2009 study showed that nearly 27% of young surgeons in Australia and New Zealand were displaying some signs of burnout. The same study reported the flow on effects on their whanau and friends, with 90% of respondents saying that it affected the quality of their relationships with their partners.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The government needs to put a stop chronically underfunding our health system and putting our doctors and patients at risk. Junior doctors deserve a better work/life balance. Their employers have a responsibility to ensure they have healthy and safe working conditions. For the DHB’s to ignore their claims around this for their collective employment agreements is unreasonable and negligent.