Urgent need to improve working hours of doctors

More needs to be done to address the issue of burnout among junior doctors (Young doctors here feeling burnt-out, says study; Nov 20).

A mentally healthy workforce is crucial for an effective healthcare system.

There are many reasons for the stress doctors experience, including limited opportunities to specialise, uncertain futures, an increasingly litigious environment and protracted working hours.

Untangling such complex issues will take years, but I am confident the Health Ministry and healthcare institutions are working on it.

Improving doctors' working hours would be a good start.

On paper, doctors should work a maximum of 80 hours a week.

The reality is that it is often next to impossible to adhere to these hours.No doctor with a conscience would stop working if their patients needed them.

The importance of continuity of care and rapport makes it difficult to hand tasks over to colleagues. The result is that doctors work beyond 80 hours and under-declare it.

I am a young doctor and I work between 12 and 17 hours a day, with another seven to 10 hours on weekends. This is considered a light workload.

Add on-call duties (working overnight for after-hours coverage) and research and education obligations, it is clear that 80-hour weeks are a pipe dream.

I have had colleagues getting into accidents after falling asleep at the wheel and I have seen friends stressed to the point of uncontrollable sobbing.

Part of the problem comes from our on-call requirements, where doctors work 30 to 36 hours continuously to cover overnight duties, on top of regular hours.

We become concerned for our lives when bus drivers work under such conditions. What more in the case of our doctors?

It doesn't have to be this way. Innovations in service delivery, such as the float system (where after-hours duties are covered by doctors working only the night shift for a period of time), are tested means of improving working hours and, possibly, patient care.

It can be implemented with minimal additional cost.

We need to ensure doctors have humane working hours so they can continue healing with humanity.

Wong Wen Kai (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2017, with the headline 'Urgent need to improve working hours of doctors'. Print Edition | Subscribe