Physicians’ Suicides from Overwork: Excessive Work Hours Driving Young Doctors to Despair

In addition to treating patients, it is part of a physician’s job to enhance their knowledge and skills. Every hospital should ensure that its labor affairs are properly managed so these tasks do not become too much of a burden.

A 26-year-old male doctor working at a general hospital in Kobe committed suicide last year, an incident that has been acknowledged as a work-related accident. He was working 200 hours of overtime a month immediately before his death, far exceeding the standards set by the government, and it was recognized that he developed a mental disorder due to these long working hours.

The doctor also had to spend time preparing papers for presentation to a medical society.

The work of physicians, who have patients’ lives in their hands, is always demanding. For physicians employed by hospitals and other medical institutions, there is also nighttime duty and emergency calls to go to work. Medical care is becoming more sophisticated every year due to advances in medicine, and the knowledge and skills to be acquired are also increasing.

This growing workload is especially burdensome for young, inexperienced physicians. Suicides by young doctors due to overwork have been occurring in recent years: A resident physician in his 30s took his own life in Tokyo in 2015, and another resident physician, also in her 30s, killed herself in Niigata in 2016.

It is imperative for hospitals first to have an accurate understanding of the status of each doctor’s patients and the research activities that doctors are engaged in. If doctors are found to have excessive workloads or to be constantly working, it is important to promptly change their work styles.

Quality medical service cannot be expected if doctors are exhausted. Reforming the way they work will also benefit patients.

In the recent case in which the male physician was acknowledged to have fallen victim to a work-related accident, the hospital had concluded that his preparations for the medical society did not constitute working hours because the hospital “did not instruct” him to make those preparations. However, the local labor standards inspection office judged that the preparations for attending the society were within the scope of his work at the hospital and that they led to overwork.

Being recognized as a specialist in particular fields of care by repeatedly making presentations to a medical society is said to burnish a physician’s reputation. Hospitals also benefit from the improved quality of medical services that results from the growth of the physicians they employ.

Research should therefore be viewed broadly as part of hospital duties. Some hospitals hold meetings late at night to discuss treatment methods but do not count these as overtime work. This situation needs to be corrected.

The long working hours of physicians have long been viewed as a problem. Starting next April, overtime work for employed physicians will, in principle, be limited to no more than 960 hours per year, which is considered to be the danger line for death from overwork. Each local area and hospital must devise ways of working to properly implement the new work-hour system.

Efforts must also be made to resolve labor shortages. It is necessary to promote the consolidation of hospitals and establish a system that allows physicians to efficiently engage in medical treatment and research.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 30, 2023)