Doctors lobby over work hours

Young doctors are on a public mission to reduce their gruelling shift hours.

UNITED WE STAND: Doctors advocating for the reduction of shift hours in public hospitals, from left, Dr Koot Kotze, Dr Helene-Mari van der Westhuizen, Dr Bronwyn Gavine and Dr Henno Schutte attend a screening of the documentary ‘Doc-U-Mentally’ about five doctors who work a 30-hour shift Picture: SINO MAJANGAZA

Interns are working flat-out for 26 hours at a stretch, and even more alarming for qualified doctors, the hours they are expected to work are almost limitless.

That’s according to Dr Koot Kotze, of the Safe Working Hours campaign, who said it meant that when interns hit their 16th-hour into their shift, they start to lose their edge.

After 16 hours of non-stop work medical problems, such as needle-stick injuries, are more likely to happen.

Kotze was speaking in East London on Wednesday at the screening of Doc-U-Mentally – a documentary about five doctors who had worked a 30-hour shift. The film depicts a typical 30-hour shift experienced by interns working in KwaZulu-Natal’s Ngwelezane Hospital.

Over 50 medical professionals attended the screening at East London Resource Centre.

Kotze said they were advocating a reduction in their working hours not because they were lazy, but as a safety measure for patients and medical staff.

“Research shows that after 16 hours of sustained wakefulness without rest, doctors can no longer perform at their best.

“Fatigue can be the cause of errors. It is extremely difficult to regulate and that is why the dialogue is important. Different hours can be applied to different departments at hospitals,” Kotze said.

The doctors said a pilot who had not slept in 30 hours would not be allowed to fly a plane, yet doctors with the same sleep deprivation were obliged to treat patients.

In fact, the meeting learned that up until last year, interns had to work 30-hour shifts and only stopped when new doctors came in.

It was regarded as a small but important victory for the medical fraternity when the Health Professionals Council of SA agreed to reduce the shift to 26 hours.

Dr Bronwyn Gavine said many people had the misconception that being the doctor on call meant being called to the hospital only when an emergency occurred and once they had dealt with it, doctors returned to their daily lives.

“That is not the case. In that time you are actively working, often with no food or rest,” Gavine said.

The chairman of the Border coastal region of the South African Medical Association (Sama), Dr Mzulungile Nodikida, said the campaign was a worthy one.

“As an association we would ideally support the idea of safe working hours for young doctors. Sama would have to look at all the available options taking into consideration the safety of our members and the public’s dire need for medical personnel,” Nodikida said.

The film shows that during a shift, interns dealt with different scenarios including the possibility of a shortage of blood, causing delays with surgery, domestic violence cases, multiple stabbings and gunshot wounds.

In March, the documentary won an award for best cinematography at the South African Film and Television Awards (Safta). It also won an award for best South African documentary at last year’s Jozi Film Festival. — siyat@dispatch.co.za