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Making Doctors More Human

Recently at lunch I sat with a general surgeon who I have known for many years. Like many of our peers, he is hard working and puts in many more than 40 hours of work each week. Before I decided to “slow down” a few years ago, my typical workweek was 60-80 hours.  Dr. N, the surgeon, was lamenting about how things had changed and how new physicians did not share our same work ethic. He should know––his son is in training now to become a surgeon too.

“They don’t want to work as hard as we did,” he said. They realize they will make less money, but they want more time off for themselves and their family.”

“How can they do that and still practice good medicine?” I asked.

His response was simple and obvious––“Shift work.”

In the years since the two of us completed our training, the medical establishment has finally realized that putting in such grueling and long hours is not good for either the patient or the doctor.  As an intern in the emergency room, I recall doing a two-month rotation of “24 on/24 off, meaning working non-stop for 24 hours, and then off for 24 hours. This pace was purportedly to prepare us for the rigors of private practice. It also weeded out those docs who would later enter a specialty with more humane hours like dermatology or pathology.

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