You might remember that we lost an intern colleague in South Africa a while ago, when she was in a fatal car accident after a long overnight shift. It was a big accident involving other vehicles, with at least two other people requiring ICU care.
One of them recently succumbed to her injuries, and the victim’s family members have made it known that they intend to sue* the Department of Health.
Most of my colleagues seem very happy with this. The government must be held responsible for the consequences of working their young doctors to exhaustion.
But part of me feels so very embittered. For years now we have asked nicely, and loudly, that our hours be addressed.
We have spoken to the National Department of Health. We have spoken to our union, SAMA (The South African Medical Association). We have spoken to The Medical Protection Society (MPS) whose best response was to inform us that an excuse of exhaustion will not hold up against a claim of medical negligence.
We have spoken to the Health Practitioner’s Council of South Africa (HPCSA) who have set the limit of 30-hour shifts – which is way, way too much.
We have set up petitions, which was met by our National Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, informing us that he, too, had to work long hours as a young doctor, and that’s just the way it is.
And in all this, nary an unconnected individual has been interested in our concerns.
I remember vividly the sense of betrayal I felt when I read the comments on this online article a few years ago.
It seems like nobody cared about doctors working long hours until someone else was affected by it. Is it wrong for me to be bitter about this? That a layperson had to die before anybody cared about the doctors who were suffering? Ilne Markwat was not the first intern do die or suffer serious disability from exhaustion. If it was just her, and no other person injured, would anybody beyond her family and colleagues have cared?
Technically, being bitter is always wrong because it achieves nothing. What I’m asking, really, is: am I being unfair? Am I being oversensitive? I didn’t even know Dr Markwat personally, although we studied at the same university and she was just a year behind me. But I feel like the other families involved in this tragedy are getting on our bandwagon to appease their suffering?
Or perhaps they will feel like doctors are getting on their bandwagon.
At the end of the day, we have all suffered a huge loss.
I just wish people had cared about our working hours before this happened.
* As it stands, I don’t think they are going to win the case. The accident happened off hospital premises, and the ruling will probably be that it was the intern’s choice to drive when she was exhausted. I don’t agree with it, but it’s probably going to turn out that way.