JUNIOR doctors’ leaders have spoken out in defence of the European Working Time Directive despite concerns over its impact on training and patient safety.
The move followed a discussion in the Lords about the directive, which limits the average working week for doctors to 48 hours.
During the discussion, junior health minister Earl Howe was asked by peers whether the EWTD as it currently operates is detrimental to patient care and doctors’ training. He acknowledged the shared concern among EU member states about the inflexibility of rulings relating to on-call time and compensatory rest.
Earl Howe said: “No one wants or deserves to be treated by tired doctors. There is a balance to be struck. The inflexibilities in the directive need to be addressed, but we should not go back to the bad old days when doctors became too tired to do their work.”
Lord Kakkar of Loxbeare, a professor of surgery in London, asked if the government collects data on the number of patients harmed as a result of the implementation of the EWTD.
Earl Howe replied that this is now the responsibility of individual trusts who are expected to ensure rotas are compliant with the directive. An assessment in January 2010, he added, showed 99 per cent of rotas were compliant.
Speaking after the discussion, BMA junior doctors committee chair Ben Molyneux said working time legislation had been debated by the JDC many times due to the diversity of opinion on the issue.
He said: “Tired doctors make mistakes, and we must think of the welfare of doctors and the resultant impact fatigue can have on patient care.
“There is a mounting body of evidence to support the move to reduced working hours in terms of patient safety. While flexibility may be appropriate, scrapping the [EWTD] is not.”
The Royal College of Surgeons of England has backed calls for increased flexibility in the implementation of the EWTD.
Among their stated priorities for 2012 is a call for the directive to allow UK surgeons a working week of “up to a maximum of and no more than 65 hours”, adding: “This is what surgical trainees have defined as the optimum amount, allowing for safe patient care and good training experience.”
Negotiations on the directive are being conducted with EU social partners, which include European-level employer and trade union organisations, until the end of this year.