LATELY, there has been hand-wringing about overworked, harassed and depressed housemen.
To be sure, traditionally, would-be-doctors had a brutal introduction to the field of medicine on the grounds that the tough training and gruelling schedules were essential to teach them how to operate under duress. Trainee doctors used to be put through the wringer with as many as 36 hours in a single stretch with little opportunity for sleep or rest. But this time-honoured tradition is honoured no more in other countries and in this country. In fact, present-day housemanship bears little resemblance to the one that the senior doctors and specialists supervising the junior doctors underwent.
Since September, there is a limit to the maximum hours a houseman can work. Under the Graduate Medical Officer Flexi Timetable, housemen work no more than 60 hours a week and are given two days off. For sure, this is not a 40-hour five-day week, with rest days at the weekends. But then again, a doctor's job is never nine-to-five, and health services and medical treatment have to be provided 24/7. In any case, the flexi hours compare favourably with the maximum 48-hour week for doctors in training set by the European Working Time Directive. Or with the 80-hour workweek mandated in the United States for medical residents.
To be sure, though the hours are shorter, some are still troubled. Most of the doctors with mental health issues that the Malaysian Medical Council reviews are housemen. But this just goes to show that whatever the hours, there will be work-related and other sources of stress in the wards and clinics. Some of that will come from senior doctors with bad bedside manners who intimidate and humiliate junior doctors. Yes, life as a trainee doctor is tough, but no more than life itself. As such, there will be those who can't take the stress and snap in despair or lash out in anger. In this regard, doctors are no less neurotic or psychotic.
At the same time, however, as the recent sad case of the death of a young trainee doctor at Kajang Hospital showed, a lot of the claims about junior doctors being dangerously overworked may just be a lot of hype and hyperbole. Certainly, complaints about work schedules and working conditions should not fall on fall deaf ears and steps should be taken to address the problems. But overburdened housemen is just such a tired old issue that it should be put to bed for good.