South African doctors are under increasing pressure to work shifts of more than 30 hours – and it’s a ticking time bomb.
This is the opinion of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), a non-profit company, aiming to create public awareness of the problem. While the industry norm in the USA and in many European countries is 16 hours per shift, our doctors are often pushed to work more than 30 hours.
“Enough is enough. This is a problem that has been going on for decades,” SAMA vice-chairperson Prof Mark Sonderup told Health24.
“We have done nothing to address the issue. Doctors are making more mistakes than ever and people are dying as a result of it.
I have colleagues who have caused accidents after working long shifts.”
Three months ago Ilne Markwat, a Cape Town resident died because of allegedly falling asleep behind the wheel. According to reports she was very tired after a long shift.
SAMA has now launched an awareness campaign where doctors wear a particular colour armband indicating to the number of hours they have worked. Thousands of doctors are currently taking part in this initiative. The different colours are:
- Green: This bracelet indicates the doctor has worked fewer than 24 consecutive hours.
- Orange: The doctor has worked more than 24 hours, but fewer than 30 hours.
- Red: This is a potential risk, and indicates that the doctor has been working for more than 30 hours.
“People have a right to know how many hours their doctors have been working,” says Sonderup. “We cannot continue with a situation where doctors are required to work such long hours.”
According to him, staff shortages, the high doctor-to-patient ratio, and the number of vacant posts are some of the reasons doctors are being pushed to put in these long hours.
“They are people too and make mistakes. We need a complete overhaul of the system. We know it won’t happen overnight, but we can’t sit back and not do anything.”
‘Change is slow’
Last month, the Western Cape Health Department reduced the shifts of junior doctors to 24 hours, down from the 30 hours the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) requires.
“The Department has done nothing to address the issue, but conversations with them have been positive,” says Sonderup.
“The HPCSA has now set up a task team to look at the situation, and they will draft an interim policy. We are willing to fight, because we can’t afford to let the problem be swept under the carpet.”