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European hours limit threatens training

Junior doctors fear their training will suffer when European limits on working time are applied next year, two separate surveys by the British Medical Assocation (BMA) show today.

From 1 August 2009, the European Working Time Directive will restrict the time junior doctors can spend in hospital to 48 hours a week.  The current limit is 56.

Two in three (64%) junior doctors surveyed by the BMA believed compliance with the 48 hour working week would have a negative overall effect on their training.  When asked what concerned them most about the 48 hour limit, a third (33%) said it was the impact on the quality of training, and a further third (32%) identified its impact on their ability to gain the skills necessary to practise safely.

However, only three in ten (30%) wanted the BMA to lobby for the 48-hour limit to be delayed, and two thirds (66%) believed that doctors should be protected from working excessive hours.  Three in five (60%) reported that their ability to provide safe medical care to patients had been compromised by pressures to work excessive hours.  

Instead, they believe the BMA’s priority should be to campaign to ensure training is deliverable within a 48 hour week.  Nearly seven in ten (68%) said the number of years junior doctors spend training should be increased.

Mr Ram Moorthy, chairman of the BMA Junior Doctors Committee, says:  “The 48-hour limit is coming, and it will have a massive impact.  Our training has to get far better if we’re going to continue to produce the best quality of doctors.  We need to look at the possibility of lengthening the amount of time it takes to qualify as a consultant.”

Two in five junior doctors (41%) reported they regularly experienced a need to undertake training during their time off.

The survey also shows widespread concern that the 48 hour week could, perversely, mean more antisocial working patterns while reducing pay.  Respondents commented that “Pay will be reduced whilst we work bizarre and complex rotas” and “We will end up working extra hours but only be paid for 48”.

The BMA today publishes ‘The Final Countdown’ – a guidance document advising junior doctors of their rights as their employers rush to change their working patterns.

A second survey – of BMA members at all levels – suggests that junior doctors’ fears are shared by the wider medical profession.  Over half (57%) did not believe it would be possible to train a doctor adequately in any speciality whilst complying with the limits.

The issue will be debated at the BMA’s annual conference of junior doctors in London on 26 April.