The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has conducted a “Safe Hours Audit”, which investigated the work habits of nearly 1500 hospital doctors during a week in 2011.
The audit revealed that most Australian doctors work dangerously long hours, and in one case a GP was on duty for 43 hours straight.
The audit also reveals the average number of total hours worked per week was 55.1 and long hours are leaving 53 per cent at risk of fatigue.
In one case, a doctor recorded a 120-hour working week.
AMA vice-president Geoffrey Dobb says the audit results are troubling.
“There is some information that suggests that when people work excessive hours their judgment can be impaired,” Professor Dobb told reporters in Sydney today.
“There are studies that show that once you go beyond 17 hours then it is rather like working with a blood alcohol level of 0.05.”
Prof Dobb said attitude shifts and better rostering would be the most effective way to cut down excessive hours rather than calling in regulators, which was the approach taken in Europe and the UK.
“What the Australian Medical Association would like to see is that change occurring without a need for regulation, but as we’ve seen in other jurisdictions internationally, change may only come through regulation,” he said.
Well-rested doctors meant better health outcomes for patients, Prof Dobb said.
“(But) I don’t believe that patients’ lives are being put at risk through this, because in our health system we have a number of safeguards.”
Prof Dobb said doctors worked as part of a team of health staff.
But the same might not hold true for doctors’ own lives, according to fifth-year obstetrics trainee Will Milford.
Dr Milford, who is chair of the AMA Council of Doctors in Training, said he had never seen a case in which a patient was put at risk but anecdotal evidence suggested that doctors themselves were experiencing “near-misses”.
“You get stories from junior doctors all the time who’ll be on their way home from a very long shift and they’ll be falling asleep at traffic lights,” Dr Milford told AAP.
He said it was not uncommon for him to work 12-hour days.