Junior doctors at Rotorua Hospital say they're so overworked they avoid driving home at night for fear of falling asleep behind the wheel. Fatigue is such an issue, they say, they are more likely to take a taxi or stay at the hospital overnight.
Rotorua's doctors, who threatened strike action last year due to what they called unreasonably long shifts, are backing the findings of a nationwide survey of their colleagues which revealed young doctors are dangerously overworked.
However, the Lakes District Health Board insists it has checks in place to ensure burnt-out doctors are not endangering patients.
The Massey University survey of nearly 1400 junior doctors found some were working more than 70 hours a week. Nearly half reported they had fallen asleep at the wheel driving home from work and four out of 10 said they had made a fatigue-related medical error over a six-month period.
Carl Huxford, a surgical registrar at Rotorua Hospital, agreed fatigue was an ongoing concern.
As part of a contract with district health boards, registrars are not supposed to work more than 72 hours a week. But Dr Huxford said it was typical for surgical registrars to work more than the maximum once a month.
"We're rostered on for less than 70 hours a week but it's not always practical for a hospital of this size to have a lot of staff on, " he said. " If work has to be done, someone has got to do it. " Dr Huxford regularly works 8am to 11pm but can occassionally be called back to work before 8am the next morning.
"That can happen twice a week which means you can be at hospital for nearly 24 hours."
Long hours affected registrars in different ways, but it was common for them to be tired and grumpy, he said. " You don't always work efficiently so that means there are days when you don't enjoy work as much. You're more tired outside of work as well and that can be frustrating."
There have been times when he was so tired at the end of a shift, he took a taxi home or slept at the hospital to avoid driving home.
Although only 40 per cent of doctors surveyed admitted to making a medical-error due to fatigue, Dr Huxford said he thought the problem was more widespread. Doctors had to remember extensive information and may not get much time to record everything.
"You might have 15 minutes' worth of information in your head but you might only get five minutes to write everything down. "
Another junior doctor, Anne-Marie Yardley, stressed Rotorua Hospital was "not as bad" for overworking its staff as others around the country.
The Resident Doctors' Association which represents junior doctors, has rated the Lakes District Health Board as the top-rating health board for junior doctor placings for the past three years.
Communications officer Sue Wilkie said the health board had processes to limit the number of hours junior doctors worked, with most working no more than 55 hours a week.
Asked what checks were in place to ensure overworked doctors were not risking the safety of patients, Miss Wilkie said senior doctors provided supervision and made sure their younger colleagues followed strict health and safety practices.
A spokeswoman for the doctors' union, Deborah Powell, said the present situation in many hospitals was "not acceptable"
"Doctors are still working 10-day shifts without a break, but that's certainly an improvement on the 12 days previously, and night shifts are now limited to four consecutive shifts instead of seven.
"If we improve conditions for doctors, we will also improve conditions for patients.
"If doctors are happy and healthy, their patients will be better off too."
©2005 Rotorua Daily Post.