EC: Lives of junior doctors and patients at risk

Numerous cases of doctors working continuous 36-hour shifts and 100-hour-plus weeks is putting their lives and health, as well as the lives of their patients, at risk, the European Commission has warned.

It is referring Ireland to the European Court of Justice for failing to apply the working-time rules that they were supposed to be phased in for doctors in training over nine years from 2000.

But despite several warnings to implement it, the Government still has not done so, the Commission said. However, Health Minister James Reilly said he was disappointed that the commission is referring the issue to the court, saying he has assured it of Ireland’s commitment to apply the directive.

A 26-year-old Cork doctor, Jessica Murphy, died from an overdose of anti-depressants last December. Her parents told the inquest last week that she worked 95 hours a week and described it as “immoral”.

The issue was referred last year to the commission by the Irish Medical Organisation, which has been running a campaign to force a reduction in the working time of junior hospital doctors in particular.

Steve Tweed, industrial relations director with the IMO, said the failure to respect the EU rules on working-time limits was shameful. “The HSE has always tried to sweep this issue under the carpet but they will now be forced to answer on it by the court,” he said.

The commission said while Ireland adopted the legislation, often it is not applied in practice in public hospitals to doctors in training or other non-consultant hospital doctors.

“There are still numerous cases where junior doctors are regularly required to work continuous, 36-hour shifts, to work over 100 hours in a single week and 70 to 75 hours per week on average, and to continue working without adequate breaks for rest or sleep,” he said.

The statement said this was a serious infringement of the EU’s Working Time directive. “It endangers not only doctors’ health and safety but also their patients as over-tired doctors risk making mistakes.”

Under the directive, the maximum working time is 48 hours a week on average, including overtime. Workers are entitled to 11 hours’ uninterrupted rest a day and an additional uninterrupted weekly rest of 24 hours.

Doctors have been covered by this rule generally, but the hours were phased in gradually from 2000 to 2009 for in-training doctors, and the minimum rest periods should have applied to them since Aug 2004.


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