Overworked junior doctors could seek legal action, says BMA

Three out of four hospitals are risking legal action because they have failed to meet a deadline on junior doctors' hours, the BMA warned today.

A BMA survey earlier this month showed that over half of senior house officers and registrars are still working above the 56-hour limit, and almost a quarter are working over 70 hours a week. Department of Health figures show that only one-in-four trusts in England is completely compliant with the New Deal.

However, under the terms of the 1991 New Deal, junior doctors should not be on their feet working for more than 56 hours a week, or do more than 72 hours of total work (including time spent on call). The limits were initially introduced as guidance, and have applied to first year doctors since 2001, but they will now be contractually binding for all junior doctors.

This Friday (1 August 2003), limits on hours, minimum rest requirements, and acceptable standards of accommodation agreed over 10 years ago will become a contractual right for all junior doctors, says the BMA. Trusts who do not comply could have training posts taken away, and the BMA "is examining avenues of legal redress" for doctors working outside the limits whose trusts fail to take action to reduce their hours.

The BMA is also concerned about the measures some trusts have taken in order to meet the deadline. The same survey showed that many doctors do not believe their hours are being monitored accurately, and there have been instances of doctors being put under pressure to lie so that managers can be seen to meet the target.

In a year's time trusts will also have to comply with the first phase of the European Working Time Directive, which is even more stringent, according to the BMA.

Dr Jo Hilborne, joint deputy chairman of the BMA's Junior Doctors Committee, said: "We need to consign the days of patients being treated by dangerously tired doctors to the past, and this is an important milestone.

"However, despite the fact that hospitals have known about the deadline for 12 years, only a quarter have done enough to meet it. Nobody wants to see doctors being forced to take legal action, but because of the lack of preparation of some trusts, it could happen."


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