Cardiothoracic surgeons are demanding lawmakers to make “a special law” to reduce their work hours.
“We had to work even longer, particularly since the legislation of the Act for the Improvement of Training Conditions and Status of Medical Residents, which limits weekly work hours to 80,” they said.
As trainee doctors shun applying for the cardiothoracic surgery department after the Medical Resident Act, some specialists warn that patients might not be able to receive cardiothoracic surgeries in Korea within a decade. Before thoracic surgeons suffer from severe burnout syndromes, they need a special law ensuring to limit their working hours, the physicians appealed.
Work-life balance; ‘pie in the sky’ for cardiothoracic surgeons
According to the Korean Society for Thoracic & Cardiovascular Surgery (KTCS)’s survey on 97 thoracic surgeons in April last year, thoracic surgeons worked 12.6 hours a day on average and spent 6.5 days for on-call time per month.
Out of 97 surgeons, 28 said they worked 13 hours a day, and 18 said 12 hours, and 14, 11 hours.
They worked 5.9 days per week on average, and 48 said they worked six days a week.
Another 29 said they worked five days, and 20, seven days a week.
The respondents worked 76.1 hours per week on average, and 23 said they worked 51-60 hours.
The average on-call time for a thoracic surgeon was 6.5 days a month, with 19 respondents saying 10 days, and the other 18, 11 days.
The 40 hours of work during weekdays was just a story of others for cardiothoracic surgeons, they said.
A professor at the thoracic surgery department at a university hospital in Seoul, said, “Workers talk about 52-hour work week or 40-hour work week. For doctors, especially surgeons and thoracic surgeons, it is just infeasible.”
Medical Resident Act made it worse for thoracic surgeons
At a news conference on Friday, KTCS’ Board Chairman Oh Tae-yun said the situation has become worse after the Medical Resident Act took effect in April.
“University hospitals suffer the most because they have to provide cardiac surgeries. We have been short of cardiothoracic surgeons, and after the law took effect, residents don’t try to apply for our department. This is serious,” Oh said.
The Medical Resident Act aims to protect patient safety, but patient safety is at great risk because specialists are taking too much work burdens, he went on to say.
“This is a problem not only in thoracic surgery but all in the surgery department. If the situation continues, some doctor might collapse due to overwork,” he warned.
Oh said the KTCS conducted the survey before the Medical Resident Act took effect, and the working environment for cardiothoracic surgeons must have gone worse since. “We will check on the working environment of thoracic surgeons across the nation soon and demand the legislation of a special law for them,” he said.
Oh said he was aware how the entire local medical community suffered from overwork.
“We are not saying that only thoracic surgeons should get favors. We are saying the government should build an environment where thoracic surgeons can care for patients with a healthy body and mind,” he said.
Medical residents rarely choose surgery departments not just because of overwork. Surgery departments tend to be more vulnerable to medical lawsuits, and it is not easy for a surgeon to open a clinic after obtaining the specialist license. The government’s incentives for medical residents applying for unpopular departments are almost useless, doctors said.
Thoracic surgeons are calling for various state supports such as raising reimbursement rates for surgery services so that university hospital managers can hire more thoracic surgeons.
“Young doctors don’t apply for surgery. Even if they become specialists, they have to work extremely long hours but can’t earn as much as other owners of plastic surgery or dermatology clinics,” said a professor at the thoracic surgery department at a university hospital. “They have an uncertain future because it is not easy to open a clinic, either.”
The government and the National Assembly should take an extraordinary measure unless they want the worst scenario of all surgeons leaving the hospitals, and there is no one to perform thoracic surgeries, the professor added.