Physician Hours: Should Physicians Work Less?


Sarah drags herself out of bed and prepares to head back to the hospital. Her eyes are blurry and her entire body hurts. It’s no wonder. She only got about five hours of sleep after working a 16-hour shift. Now she’s preparing to head back in for another double. She knew when she picked this profession that physician hours would be cumbersome, but she didn’t realize the physical and emotional toll it would have on her… Sometimes she wonders how she even drives to and from work as tired as she is, and she hasn’t seen her family for what feels like days.

Physician Hours: Are Physicians Working Too Many Hours?

physician hours

Sarah isn’t alone. Physicians in the United States work insanely long hours on little to no sleep so that they can meet the increasing needs of their patients. Yet, would you want a pilot flying you in a plane if they’d already been working for 16 plus hours? Probably not. So, then why is it that as a doctor you’re expected to take care of patients when you’ve had little to no sleep and worked long hours? Dr. Pamela Wible used this as an example in a recent interview featured on AllPhysicianJobs. Wible is a physician who’s made it her life’s work to raise awareness on physicians dying by suicide and how to prevent it from happening. She points out that not only are physicians working insanely long hours, but they have a job that places them around people who are sick, suffering and dying. This results in “trauma just from doing our jobs confidently,” she says. With long shifts and busy schedules, this doesn’t leave much time for self-care or healing when things get rough. With that said, what exactly are the average physician hours and should they work less?

What Are the Average Physician Hours?

The number of physician hours can vary depending on specialty, location, and responsibility. However, averages are startling. For example, after years of medical school, doctors in training have to spend an additional three to seven years in residency, working at an established teaching hospital. Residents are expected to spend 80 hours a week in the hospital, with shifts averaging 28 hours. Not only are they working 80 hours a week – the equivalent of two full-time jobs – but during this time residents are paid a similar salary to that of the hospital cleaning staff, not that of the physicians they’re working alongside. Once they get through residency, physician hours get a little easier, with an average of 60 hours per week. Sound familiar? There are many that question whether physicians are working too many hours, and how these long shifts and obvious lack of rest impacts patient care.

physician hours

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Should Work Hours for Doctors Change?

When you consider the grueling hours that your profession demands of you, it’s no surprise that physicians are exhausted and burned out from work. Even with various coping mechanisms, it’s challenging. Residents and physicians are expected to work so many hours because it shows their level of dedication and commitment to their patients. Yet, more and more studies are emerging that show how dangerous lack of sleep can be.  For example, one study showed that drivers who only slept between five and six hours in a 24-hour period are twice as likely to crash than those who slept more than seven hours. So, should you be performing surgery at the end of a 28-hour shift? Although long hours in the medical field sound dangerous, some aren’t so sure. One hospital lowered the required hours for residents. After doing so they found that there was no drop in medical errors. More and more hospitals are studying the pros and cons of current work hours for doctors. However, with growing physician shortages, things aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

Do you struggle with your required physician hours? Why or why not? Share with us in the comments below!

Author: Lenay Ruhl

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