Long hours mean errors in diagnosis, doctors say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am


Most public doctors say working long hours affects their job performance and medical judgment while on duty, according to a new survey.

Eight out of 10 doctors surveyed said overwork affected their ability to conduct proper diagnosis, and four out of 10 admitted they had committed medical errors as a result.

More than 85 per cent said they would consider quitting their jobs at public hospitals if working conditions did not improve.

The survey was conducted by the Frontline Doctors' Union, medical lawmaker Leung Ka-lau and the action group on standard hours, which was formed by public health doctors in March. Questionnaires were distributed to 4,525 doctors at public hospitals early this month. There were 711 replies.

The survey found doctors were working, on average, a 65-hour week. However, 12 per cent said they were working more than 80 hours a week.

Fewer than 30 per cent of the doctors in the survey thought the Hospital Authority's HK$172 million package of measures to retain staff would prove effective.

Dr Ng Chi-ho, a spokesman for the action group, said the proposed measures failed to address the concerns and needs of doctors. He said the real issue was overwork, which could only be resolved by implementing standard working hours.

'Standard working hours are what the doctors really need,' he said. 'We need more rest so we can provide quality medical services to our patients.'

An increasing number of medical errors in recent years had been the result of medical staff being overworked, and mistakes such as prescribing the wrong medication to patients were becoming more common, he said. 'We have no time to double check the prescriptions.'

The group suggested standards be set at 51 hours per week as a starting point and gradually shortened to 44 hours. Leung said the doctors should also be paid higher rates for overtime. This might make hospitals more careful in deploying doctors and balancing their workloads.

'Now some doctors are working 40 hours a week and some 60,' Ng said. 'This imbalance of workload needs to be changed.'

The action group is trying to arrange a meeting with Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen to express its views. It wants to bypass the Hospital Authority because, the group claims, it has not been sincere in past meetings.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok had said it was difficult to set a standard for doctors' hours, because they were taking care of patients with different needs. He hoped the doctors and the authority could reach an agreement.

The Hospital Authority said last night it was very concerned about doctors' working environment and had suggested a package of measures to improve this. It was now gathering doctors' opinions and hoped the measures could be applied soon.

Unhealthy workloads

The survey found 12 per cent of doctors worked for this many hours a week: 80