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Tired doctors are facing intense pressure in Western Australia

20 November, 2006

WA hospital doctors are working excessively long hours and being pushed to dangerous levels of fatigue, the AMA(WA) has warned.

"The burden on our public hospitals is resulting in young doctors having to work onerous and unsafe hours," said Dr Michael O'Sullivan, chair of the association's Doctors in Training Committee.

"If nothing is done to ease the pressure by hospital administrators, the fatigue and stress will either force doctors out of the system or result in a decline in patient safety."

Dr O'Sullivan said the 2006 nation-wide AMA Safe Hours survey of hospital doctors showed that 62 per cent of respondents were working unsafe hours which put them in the significant and higher risk category. In the area of surgery, 85 per cent of respondents fell into this category.

The survey results for WA included reports that:

- One junior doctor did not have a day off in three weeks, despite working consecutive weeks of 67 and 62 hours.

-  Another worked 76 hours in one week and 65 hours the following week; one shift lasted 17 hours. 

-  A registered medical officer (RMO) at a Perth hospital reported working 78 hours one week, including a 16 hour day. 

-  Another RMO said he worked a total of 144 hours over two weeks and only managed three days off in three weeks.

"Junior doctors often work long hours, which is in breach of the AMA(WA) agreement," said Dr O'Sullivan.

"While hospitals try their best to draw up rosters that ensure doctors work reasonable hours and get reasonable breaks, the problem is they're under huge pressure because of overcrowding, the shortage of hospital beds and the shortage of doctors.

"Young doctors are dedicated people and when they're asked to work long hours they try and cope without complaining.

"Eventually, however, the fatigue and stress catches up with them and at that point their employer's demands could easily result in errors and put a patient's life at risk.

"Hospitals need to tackle the problem rather than simply reply on dedicated doctors."

AMA (WA) President Prof Geoff Dobb said junior doctors were often the backbone of busy public hospitals because they were committed, uncomplaining and keen to do the right thing.

"Unfortunately, the hospitals often take advantage of that dedication," he said.

"We need a system that is focussed on achieving safe and sensible working hours for all doctors and one that doesn't require them to work beyond their capacity."

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