Overworked doctors endangering patients


News reports in early September said doctors had admitted to many instances of patients being seriously injured or killed due to doctors' exhaustion. The data was from a study by Salaried Doctors Queensland earlier this year.

Instances of 100-hour weeks are common and it is not unusual for doctors to work up to 40 hours continuously. The problem is exacerbated by lack of provision of rest areas for "on call" doctors.

Governments in all states, but especially in Queensland, have kept doctor numbers artificially low as a cost-saving measure. The cost of this practice is excessive doctor fatigue and patient deaths.

Many medical colleges believe young doctors should go through a "baptism of fire", as their elders did, but the main blame for doctors' excessive working hours lies with the government. There is a shortage of doctors prepared to work in public hospitals because the financial benefits of private practice are so much better.

This is made worse by the transfer of health funding from public to private. Health insurance subsidies and kickbacks from medical specialists to GPs for referrals are paid for by the publicly funded Medicare system.

In August, the European Union issued a directive limiting hospital doctors' working hours to 48 hours a week. This directive has been largely followed except in Britain where the New Labour government is fighting the implementation tooth and nail.

Meanwhile, the Queensland state Labor government maintains a very large health bureaucracy. Yet a safe, healthy working environment for publicly employed doctors and their patients remains elusive.