Patients Don’t Want Exhausted Doctors

Before you read what I have to say, you should read Dr Nikki Stamp’s post: How tired is too tired?

One day, I’d like to have a study to prove the post title. But for now, we’ll have to settle for another anecdote:

tired doctor

Late last year, while I was on the surgical service, I had a small chat with a family member of a deceased patient.

During our ward rounds, relatives of patients recently demised would come in, requesting a death certificate to be filled. It’s a long process but it has to be done. Sometimes I would console the distraught relatives. Sometimes I would need to answer questions that had no real answers. Other times, as in this case, the atmosphere would be one of quiet acquiescence: the patient had been old, and suffering; her body had become her torture chamber.

As I was filling the death certificate, the relative noted my scrubs (at our hospital we generally only wear scrubs when we are on call, and many patients have picked up on that).

He said, “Oh, you’re on call today.”

And I smiled, confirming.

He asked, “When do you go home?”

I wasn’t sure if I should say, but I guess it’s not secret. “Tomorrow afternoon by noon, hopefully.”

He was still blissfully ignorant at this point. “So you have to sleep in the doctor’s quarters tonight?”

And I said, “There usually isn’t much sleeping going on while on call.”

The realisation was now starting to dawn on him.

“But you don’t touch patients in the middle of the night, right? I’m sure you have someone fresh to help you.”

And because I was on a roll of truth-telling, I had to deny his assumption.

No. I do touch patients. I do more than touch patients. I compress their chests. I run life-saving fluids into their veins. I call grumpy consultants from obscure sub-specialties to inform them that their expertise is needed.

“Sir,” I said. “If you were in a car accident at 03h00 tomorrow morning, I would be part of the team that saved your life.”

And he wasn’t happy. Because how could a tired doctor (team of tired doctors) have to save his life – or, God forbid, his children’s?

Could he refuse, he asked. Could he demand a more awake doctor; if the hypothetical accident occurred?

Well, I guess he could. Whether his request would be granted, or even possible, was another story.

Suddenly, the plight of exhausted doctors all over the country had become personal to him. He understood.

And, not surprisingly, he was horrified.


  1. Zahid Badroodien says:

    Mariechen, I got to the end and needed to read more. Thank you for your blog.

  2. What a good post!! And heartbreakingly true. Something has got to change.

  3. estemarks says:

    This is something that needs to be discussed more often. Great read!! KEEP IT UP! 😀

  4. Nancy Ackelson says:


  5. Robyn says:

    So strange how different it is here! All we get from patients is a brief moment of surprise, followed by some hollow pity (some variation on ‘That’s rough’). But no one really thinks about the effect of sleep deprivation on a doctor’s ability to, well, doctor. And no one seems to be concerned about how it will affect their treatment.

  6. Saber Baluch says:

    Hi There,
    I work for SBS Television. I want to get in touch with you in regard to a story I’m researching on sleep. Please email
    Thank you.

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