Doctors sleep under desks because they’re too tired to drive

Ambulance patients faced record wait times, more than 76,000 people (one in 10 patients) left the emergency room without completing treatment and a record 18,700 patients waited too long for elective surgery in NSW public hospitals between April and June – nine times more than before Delta’s 2021 lockdown, the Bureau of Health Information’s most recent quarterly report showed.

The Hospital Health Check survey found that the rate of prospective doctors working unplanned overtime has skyrocketed. 72 percent reported working more than five extra hours every two weeks, up from 60 percent in 2021. Only a third of prospective doctors claim all of their overtime over time.

The doctors are overworked and exhausted after two and a half years of the pandemic.

The doctors are overworked and exhausted after two and a half years of the pandemic. Recognition:James Brickwood

The trainees work 80 hours a fortnight, plus regulated overtime in the evenings, overnight and at weekends, which can be up to 16 to 18 hours. They also routinely work unplanned overtime and cover on-call shifts, which often means they’re either called to the hospital or woken up several times a night to make important medical decisions over the phone, Hettige said.

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“Then you’re expected to come and do it all over again with minimal sleep,” he said.

The survey found that more than half (56 percent) were concerned that working excessive hours was endangering their own health and safety.

dr Jacqueline Ho, also co-chair of the Registrar’s Committee, recalls feeling unsafe when she got into her car after a long shift and instead found a desk to sleep on.

“I know a number of colleagues who have had car accidents while driving home from long shifts,” Ho said.

The Perrottet government has committed to hiring more than 10,000 doctors, nurses, paramedics, midwives, pathologists and related health workers over the next four years to help ease the strain of chronic understaffing and rising demand at the state’s hospitals during the protracted pandemic to reduce.

Hettige said the state government needs to enshrine safe working hours and provisions in policies and employment contracts.

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“We work harder and longer, but under an award that is more than 30 years old. For a significant number of junior doctors, these contract terms were written before they were even born,” he said.

NSW Health Secretary Brad Hazzard said exhaustion and fatigue had impacted healthcare workers worldwide as the pandemic unfolded.

“I think it’s right to acknowledge that doctors, young and old, have been hit hard,” Hazzard said.

Hazzard said he hasn’t had any reports of fatigue-related errors from doctors leading to negative outcomes for patients, “but in a large system, it’s possible.”

A spokesman for NSW Health said the number of medication errors had fallen over the past two years.

“Any patient safety issues will be identified, immediate risks mitigated and actions taken to make system improvements,” the spokesman said in a statement.

“The last two and a half years have been very challenging and it’s understandable that some employees are feeling burnt out, anxious or desperate,” they said. “We encourage any healthcare worker or frontline worker who is anxious or feeling stressed to seek support as soon as possible.”

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More results from the 2022 Hospital Health Check Survey

  • More than one in three trainees reported being bullied at work, most often by their supervisors.
  • One in four felt intimidated. The main aggressors were the patients’ families.
  • Female trainees were twice as likely to be discriminated against (31 percent compared to 16 percent of male trainees).
  • Women were less likely to take undeclared overtime hours than their male counterparts, with surgical trainees accounting for the largest gender gap (38 percent vs. 57 percent).
  • 54 percent stated that they did not feel valued by their hospital.
  • 46 percent said they would not recommend their hospital to any other doctor in training.

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