All government hospitals to cut doctors' hours

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am

Doctors at some busy hospitals have had their work week cut to 65 hours under a pilot programme and, because of its success, the Hospital Authority will soon extend the scheme to all public hospitals.

However, the Public Doctors' Association has strongly criticised the controversial reform for compromising patient safety, saying the pilot scheme has left fewer doctors on night duty for emergencies.

To address the issue of overworked doctors, the authority introduced pilot reforms at seven hospitals last year aiming to cut many doctors' 70 to 80 hours of work a week to 65 hours or less. The cuts have been achieved by reducing the number of night shifts and patient admissions.

The steering committee on the reform has issued a 172-page final report, which showed that some doctors at the pilot hospitals have had their work week reduced to 65 hours and work shifts cut to 16 hours from about 28.

Some departments at these hospitals - including surgery, orthopaedics and anaesthesia - managed to cut the number of nighttime doctors by one or two.

The authority's director for cluster services, Cheung Wai-lun, said the pilot reform had seen 'some successes', and the authority was moving towards a 65-hour work week at all public hospitals.

Under the pilot reform, three hospitals set up special emergency wards to treat patients from the accident and emergency rooms. Six hospitals have introduced 24-hour service by technical-services assistants who have taken over some simple duties from doctors, including taking blood samples, recording electrocardiograms and inserting intravenous tubes.

The authority has asked frontline doctors to document their work hours this year, so the programme's success can be determined.

However, Public Doctors' Association president Ho Pak-leung said the situation was 'worrying', since some hospitals have cut the number of night doctors available to respond to emergencies.

'For example, in the past a hospital could have six doctors from six different specialties on night duty; now there are only three doctors from three different specialties. So there are situations in which a surgeon has to cover an area of surgery that he may not be familiar with.'

The report said the authority had faced a high turnover of doctors in various specialties. For example, in 2006-07 and 2007-08, 11.15 per cent and 11.88 per cent of surgeons had left the authority, respectively, compared with the overall turnover rate of specialists of 6.67 per cent and 6.61 per cent respectively.

The report said the authority planned to hire private doctors on a part-time basis.

The number of part-time private practitioners working in public hospitals increased from 27 in August 2006 to 35 in August last year.

'It is thought that the financial tsunami currently hitting the global economy will make it easier to employ private practitioners on a part-time basis, whose services would ultimately benefit both patients and the frontline doctors,' the report said.