Cape Town - Junior doctors in the Western Cape will no longer be required to work contentious 30-hour shifts after the provincial Department of Health reduced them by six hours following an outcry by the medical fraternity.
On Monday, Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo said that as of January, these doctors will now work 24-hour shifts as opposed to the 30-hours that are required by the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA).
“As from the 1st of January we are reducing the hours. We can no longer sit back and watch doctors being disadvantaged and robbed. The safety of our health workers is in our hands as the department and care providers in the province. This shows the commitment of the department towards the plight and safety of health workers,” she said.
While the South African Medical Association (Sama) vice-chairman, Dr Mark Sonderup, welcomed the move to reduce the unsafe working hours, he said such a move should be accompanied by the increase in the number of doctor posts.
“It’s a progressive and good gesture, but if we are reducing hours, someone must make up for that deficit that is left in the system. If the Western Cape government can give us more funded posts to fill the gaps that are going to be left by these doctors, this would move from being progressive to a laudable move,” he said.
Mbombo said the decision to reduce the working hours was reached following concerns raised by various organisations such as the Junior Doctors Association of SA (Judasa) and Sama.
Mbombo said doctors would still be required to work the full monthly complement of shifts amounting to 40 “normal” hours and between 64 and 80 hours of overtime, but the shifts themselves would be capped at 24 hours in the Western Cape. The remaining hours would be staggered across shifts.
“At the end doctors will still work their full hours as required by HPCSA, but here we will cap shifts at 24 hours. We think this is a great improvement compared to 30 hours,” she said.
Meanwhile, the HPCSA said it would, before the end of this week, notify all health institutions of the reduction in hours. Priscilla Sekhonyana, spokeswoman for the council, said: “The Medical and Dental Board at its meeting on July 26, resolved that the maximum working hours for interns be reduced from 30 to 24 hours. This will be as soon as all the institutions have been notified - by the end of the week.”
The issue of doctors working dangerously long hours was thrust into the spotlight after the death a Cape Town medical intern, Ilne Markwat, who died early in June. She crashed her car into a barrier before colliding with two cars in the oncoming lane on the N1, after a 26-hour shift at Paarl Hospital.
Shifts of up to 36 hours became a serious discussion point. As a result of the car crash, Judasa started campaigning for a reduction in working hours for junior doctors. An online petition, Safe Working Hours for Junior Doctors, called on the HPCSA to review its shift policy and for continuous shifts not to exceed 16 hours.
Judasa’s chairman, Zahid Badroodien, said: “While the province must be lauded for its bold, progressive decision, our colleagues in the other provinces are still subject to the inhumane regulations expecting up to 30 hours of continuous labour when on call.”
He said this was a victory for provincial doctors. Judasa would continue to call on the government to prioritise the lack of funded posts.
“As it stands, just over 200 junior doctors of the class of 2017 will be unemployed next year due to lack of funded posts.
“Making more posts available will decrease the burden of extra hours and therefore the need for additional safer shifts,” Badroodien said.