Doctors are falling asleep at their computers and having to give up toilet breaks in order to manage shifts that can be as long as 76 hours.
A new audit has found that more than half of doctors in Australia’s public hospitals are working unsafe hours, placing them at high risk of fatigue.
Intensive care physicians and surgeons are the most stretched, according to the Australian Medical Association report published on Saturday.
One doctor reported working an unbroken 76-hour shift, alongside others who endured shifts of between 53 and 72 hours.
“What we’re seeing here is that the system is under stress,” AMA vice president Tony Bartone told reporters in Canberra.
“These doctors are routinely missing lunch breaks, missing meal breaks, having to withhold toilet stops. They’re working consecutive shifts, often back to back.”
Dr Bartone said doctors were routinely telling him they were tired and would sometimes fall asleep at their terminal while doing paperwork.
“This is not an environment that you want to have a vulnerable population, your patient, being exposed to in a routine manner.”
The longest working week reported during the audit was 118 hours – the same as 2006 – while the average week came in at 78 hours.
Only 11 per cent had two full days free of work in that period, and just under half worked three or more days without a meal break.
“What it shows is that you have a system that is under stress and it only takes a small, little thing to result in a massive error that might result in harm,” John Zorbas, chair of the AMA Council of Doctors in Training, said.
The AMA is calling on state and territory governments to boost efforts to ensure better rostering and safer work practices.
The 2016 audit is the fourth nationwide survey of doctors’ working hours by the AMA since 2001.
A total of 716 salaried doctors and doctors-in-training were asked to keep an online diary of their work hours, on-call hours and sleep time over one week last November.