Doctors will wear specific coloured armbands to show how long they have been on call.
Doctors will wear specific coloured armbands to show how long they have been on call.

Armbands to identify fatigued doctors

By Lisa Isaacs Time of article published Sep 26, 2016

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Cape Town - Doctors are to be given coloured armbands to show the public the dangerously long hours they have been working at understaffed hospitals.

It’s the latest in a campaign to end a crisis over fatigued doctors and understaffed hospitals first exposed by the Cape Times.

The South African Medical Association (Sama) launched the campaign at the weekend, and is set to roll out the armbands at public and private practices. Doctors will wear specific coloured armbands to show how long they have been on call:

* A green armband indicates the doctor has worked less than 24 consecutive hours.

* Orange indicates more than 24 hours but less than 30 hours.

* Red indicates more than 30 consecutive hours.

A doctor with a red armband is a potential risk and should be allowed to rest, Sama insists.

The campaign is not only aimed at making it easier for people to identify doctors who have worked longer hours, it is also a visible reminder more doctors are needed.

The excessive hours doctors work came under the national spotlight after the Cape Times exposed the death of medical intern Ilne Markwat, 25, killed in a car crash after she allegedly fell asleep behind the wheel after working a very long shift.

Interns work shifts of up to 30 hours and more. Last month, the Provincial Health Department reduced the shifts of junior doctors to 24 hours from the 30 the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) requires.

Sama chairperson Mzukisi Grootboom said: “We cannot continue with a situation where doctors are putting in 10, 15 or even 20 hours extra a shift to the detriment of their patients and their own health, while vacancies are not filled.

“If this status quo is not reversed, we will unfortunately have an increased risk of incidents involving tired doctors. The issue needs urgent attention.”

He said the armband campaign was an important tool to identify doctors who had gone beyond the reasonable hours they should serve. “But it is also a reminder that we simply need more doctors in our country.”

Sama vice-chairperson Mark Sonderup said patients had a right to know how many hours their doctors had been working. He said patients could take up their concerns with the facility manager or approach the provincial and national health departments.

“This is the beginning of a new journey. There is a need for change in the entire function of the health sector,” he said.

While the provincial department was set to implement the adjusted hours next year, this did not address the core issue of understaffed hospitals, he said, adding that according to international standards, doctors should not work more than 16 hours.

“The numbers of staff are not changing. At the end of the day, patients are not going away and the demand on the system is increasing. We also need to change the way my colleagues think. They believe working these hours is the norm,” Sonderup said.

Junior Doctors Association of South Africa (Judasa) provincial chairperson Zahid Badroodien said the campaign was a tangible approach to addressing the crisis.

“The safety of our patients is at the epicentre of this campaign. It is for our patients and colleagues that we must ensure proactive steps are taken to bettering the health care system for all involved and committed to its improvement,” he said.

Judasa has called on all members to participate in the campaign and educate patients about the necessity of a safer health system for health care providers so that their well-being and care were prioritised.

Provincial Health Department spokesperson Mark van der Heever said any initiative contributing to the safety of staff and patients was welcome.

“We are working with Sama continuously. We encourage Sama to formally adopt the initiative at its next engagement with the national department if they have not yet done so,” he said.

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