Apparently doctors are not human

Photo of the doctor sleeping from the original blog post now causing uproar.
Photo of the doctor sleeping from the original blog post now causing uproar.

There appears to be a general assumption that doctors are not human, or at least not human enough to sleep when tired, eat when hungry, cry when upset and lose their temper when angry.

A blog post is making the rounds on social media about a Mexican doctor who fell asleep on her shift. The photo was taken by an upset member of the public (without the doctor’s consent), who then posted it online. The medical community responded by posting online a series of pictures of themselves sleeping on the job, to highlight the global problem of the unacceptable working hours of doctors.

Why I will never work night shifts again

The day I finished my community service year, I promised myself I’d never work another night shift ever again. The reason for that decision is that the quality of my life became so impaired that I turned into a completely dysfunctional human being. At home I would snap at the ones closest to me and at work I would often find myself drifting off and my mind going blank. I had no interest in any hobbies or meeting with even my closest friends, and my personal relationships suffered because of constant exhaustion.   

The situation of unacceptable working hours has been a problem for so long that it has simply become an accepted fact that all doctors work long hours. What makes it worse is that everyone expects doctors to be efficient, friendly and on top form for the full duration of their shift. I do agree that doctors should be fully functional when working, but can one expect a normal human being to consistently perform at full capacity under such challenging conditions? How can it be reasonable to expect anyone to perform at 100% at three in the morning when their shift started at 7am the previous day?

My biggest problem is the blithe assumption that doctors are not subject to basic human needs like sleeping. Saying that doctors should not sleep on the job does, however, not address the basic problem. A rule that doctors are not allowed to work for more than 16 hours (still a substantial amount, highlighting just how crazy the situation has become) at a time would be simpler and much more effective.

Who is to blame?

Is it the government for not even attempting to address the problem? The councils that fight for patients’ rights but at the same time keep doctors on their toes? The patients for having no idea what it is like to work such long hours? Or is it the doctors themselves who allow this to happen? I’m not really sure. Probably all of them.

When I think back to the time when I was beyond tired and struggling to get through the night, I can’t imagine how I managed to avoid making a mistake that could have cost me my career. I don’t know how I managed to sufficiently clear my clouded mind to treat the critically ill patients arriving in the emergency unit throughout the night – when I couldn't even recall any of their details the next day.

I fear the day when a colleague makes a mistake and it becomes headline news, I can see it now “Patient dies due to doctor’s negligence”.  The people “protecting” the doctor will then in all likelihood be the very same who are launching full-scale investigations around the doctor. I am positive that “I made a mistake because I was beyond tired” will not be accepted as a line of defense.   

The government urgently needs to start looking after their doctors. If not, they will continue to leave the country in droves. The remaining ones will continue to feel drained and continue to fall asleep on duty, and soon, perhaps a lot sooner than they think, the situation will blow up in their faces.

Image: Photo of doctor asleep at work from the original blog post. 

This is a post by one of our contributors. Please note that it does not necessarily represent the views of Health24.

More columns by Dr Owen Wiese:

Backstreet abortions: why is it still happening?
TB: the side only doctors see
When a doctor loses a patient

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