Doctors Aren’t Superhuman. So Why Do We Impose Punishing Hours on Them?

Residents work under conditions few others would tolerate.

Many a bright young kid dreams about being a doctor. But if they knew the reality of residency — including 80 hour workweeks and shifts that can last for 28 hours — they might strive for a less demanding profession. As this Atlantic piece titled “Why So Many Young Doctors Work Such Awful Hours,” by Ryan Park, recently pointed out, our current medical training system leaves residents stuck with work conditions that people in any other industry wouldn’t put up with, let alone excel in.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

One of the factors that contributes to these ultra-demanding standards is that doctors have “no legal right or ability to negotiate the terms of his or her entrée into the medical profession,” Park writes. A budding investment banker may be able to set flexible hours with an employer — a resident can’t tell a hospital that they’d love to accept a residency offer but won’t work more than 60 hours a week when the program calls for 70-plus. And while it is theoretically possible to select less intense programs via the “match” system, it’s unrealistic to think that every resident who wants work life balance will find a program that meets their (completely justified) needs.

All of this leaves us with a system in which “residents typically work more than twice as many hours annually as their peers in other white-collar professions, such as attorneys in corporate law firms — a grueling schedule that potentially puts both caregivers and patients at risk,” Park writes.

Having resident’s work fewer hours seems like a win-win. We don’t retain information or learn as well when we’re tired, according to research, so being well-rested would likely help doctors do their jobs better. Plus, patients would probably feel more at ease knowing that the person they’re trusting with their health isn’t on hour 26 of a 28-hour shift.

Just like in large corporations, changing the conversation in hospitals to one that prioritizes doctor’s well-being requires a shift in thinking from the top down. Until health-care decision-makers realize that the expectations placed on residents set them up for burnout and exhaustion, we’re stuck with a system that doesn’t put anyone’s health first.

Read more at The Atlantic.