OVERWORKED junior doctors are falling asleep at the wheel driving to and from the job, prompting a union call to cut working hours amid fears for patient safety.
Resident Doctors Association general secretary Deborah Powell said at least seven junior doctors had fallen asleep driving to or from work after working more than 16-hour days in the past 18 months.
In every case, the car went off the road. One vehicle was written off after hitting a lamp-post but none of the drivers was injured. Dr Powell said it was just sheer luck that no one had been killed.
" Do we really have to wait till a doctor crashes across the median barrier driving home from the Hutt and kills another motorist or themselves or a patient before something is done? "
Some junior doctors at Wellington and Hutt hospitals worked long hours with heavy workloads, prompting the introduction of temporary measures to alleviate the problem. She said Hutt Hospital junior doctors in surgery, orthopaedics and gynaecology regularly worked more than 16-hour days or 72-hour weeks. This included on-call time.
The doctors had complained to the union that they were working unsafe hours and they were scared for their own safety as well as that of the patients, she said. As a result patients arriving at Hutt Hospital between midnight and 8am needing surgery, gynaecological or orthopaedic care were now being sent to Wellington Hospital to give the registrars a rest. Dr Powell said that there was concern at Wellington Hospital over the long hours worked by neurosurgery and cardiothoracic surgery registrars and their midnight to dawn shifts were being temporarily filled by locums.
At a meeting between the union and Capital Coast and Hutt Valley district health boards on April 29, several options would be examined in a bid to solve the problems. Dr Powell said the union had similar concerns at hospitals run by the Auckland, Southland and Taranaki district health boards.
Both Wellington and Hutt were busy hospitals which meant in addition to long hours, doctors had heavy workloads. In Hutt, more staff might be needed, which meant more money - "often you run into a problem with safety on one side and money on the other and I think that's what we are running into at Hutt".
Hutt Hospital general manager Warrick Frater said since the measures had been put in place last Thursday, two patients had been sent to Wellington Hospital. It was a complicated issue and trying to recruit more doctors was not the answer, he said, because concern centred on the amount of on-call time and there would not be enough day work for extra doctors. He said registrars had to fulfill certain requirements to qualify in their speciality and he did not want to see a situation where rosters lengthened the time junior doctors took to qualify.
A Capital and Coast spokesman said there was a problem in the sub-specialties and, in addition to hiring locums, rosters were being reviewed.
© 2005 Fairfax New Zealand