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The doctor is in -- but not for long

February 23, 2010 |  1:00 pm

Clock In the public perception, medical doctors are among the hardest-working, most dedicated professionals in the workforce, routinely toiling through 12- or 15-hour days.

Some doctors undoubtedly do work that much. But the trend in the United States is for doctors to work less, not more. Today's physicians work, on average, 51 hours a week -- a figure, I'm guessing, is not uncommon in a great many other professions (teaching, law, journalism).

A study released Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. surveyed doctors' work hours from 1976 to 2008. About 1997, doctors began working less, with hours declining nearly 7.2% between 1997 to 2007. The drop was seen across all types of doctors: men, women, young, old, hospital-based, self-employed, resident and non-resident. However, older doctors still tend to work more hours than younger doctors.

It's not clear why doctors are working less, but the decline in pay-per-hour is likely one cause. Average doctor fees, adjusted for inflation, decreased by 25% between 1995 and 2006. Doctors today "may have less incentive" to work, the authors of the paper note.

The trend has implications for society. Doctor shortages are already felt in some parts of the country and are predicted to become more acute in coming years. And, the paper notes, a 5.7% decrease in hours among a workforce of 630,000 doctors is equivalent to the loss of nearly 36,000 doctors.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Juan Carlos Hernandez  /  Bloomberg News

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Comments (14)

They are working fewer hours, not less hours. Where's your proofreader?

I find it hard to believe that this number can be measured with any real accuracy.

Actually it's "fewer hours", not "less". Do you have an editor?

Do you really want an overworked and stressed out doctor taking care of you or your family? You hear horror stories of doctors with awful bedside manners... maybe having them work "normal" hours will give us quality medical care.

With the changing gender make-up of the physician work force, rise in two-income families, and changing societal norms regarding the father's role in the family, physician parents are faced with greater responsibilities at home requiring a reduction in work hours. The absent physician father just won't cut it anymore. Realizing that we have a family in addition to a career has been an important step in improving the quality of life for physicians. More doctors not more hours is the answer.

Better get a prescription for incorrect grammar. Would that be "fewer" hours?

part of the reason might be more doctors are going into specialties that are shift-based, not office based. ER, anesthesiology, hospitalists, intensivists, etc. work shifts instead of office hours. also, doctors are much less willing to take call than they used to be.

You get what you pay for.

I do wonder how this is calculated. I know that doctors often stay long after the last patient has left to complete documentation and answer calls.

Instead of titling this article "Doctors working less hours than you think", it should be "Copy editors working fewer hours than you think"

If the medical care system in the country requires that doctors must work piles of overtime to meet the demand for their services , then something is seriously amiss. The idea that doctors are paid less as a route cause is poppycock. I would hope that one would enter medicine as a calling and not as a cash cow...
I think that there is an absolute indicator here of two things: 1. That medical schools fees are absurdly high as a means to discourage anyone but the wealthy from entering medicine, thus a shortage of medical doctors..
2. That the work ethic of the current generation has a more balanced outlook for quality of life than mine did so they have less desire to sacrifice their lives to the "man".

Obviously if a person feels that their wages are diminishing and they are working what is essentially piecework as doctors are, if it were about money then they would work more and not less to close the gap ...

Shari, you may wish to take some remedial English classes as well, I'll bet you are a person who speaks only in the present tense as do newscasters...

"But the trend in the United States is for doctors to work less, not more."

Um, GOOD! 51 hours is still ridiculous. I want my doctor to be awake, happy and engaged with a real life within the community, not barely together, shambling and depressed from overwork.

Doctor shortages are a real issue that must be addressed, but don't you think that the expectation of a reasonable work week might entice more people to become doctors?

Why are these obvious points in a comment, and not in the main article?

those lazy bums! only working 11 hour days?!? nevermind that it doesn't include overnight call hours, non-patient paperwork hours, patient calls, etc.

I reported on this phenomena a few years ago but came to completely different conclusions. Declining salaries have nothing to do with declining hours, and if anything, promote longer working hours and help to reduce the rate of decline. What has changed is the realization that working long hours equates to poor performance. Committed doctors want to provide quality, not quantity, to patients if quantity is thought to lead to a greater probability of medical mistakes or at least, a perception of marginal quality.

Proper processing and analysis of patient data is taking longer than before because there is more to learn and more to consider than 30-40 years ago. The whole thrust of the 2003 changes to reduce residency hours nationally was based on the reseach showing that practicing medicine against your comfort level is a problem of quality: working with less sleep, or perhaps simply because of another distracting reason like money, is akin to working drunk. The issue is about a perception of quality of care, nothing else.

Every doctor intuitively knows what their mental limit is before they begin to overlook things and make mistakes. This is simply a trend in which doctors are coming into equilibrium with themselves to improve the quality of their work.


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