In U.K., the working hours of junior doctors' has been reduced in order to increase their efficiency. Junior doctors will have to work only 48 hours instead of the prevailing 58 under the European Working Time Directive. This will come into force by 2009.
However, researchers at Massey and Auckland universities in New Zealand, conducting an Occupational and Environmental Medicine journal study, inquired 1,400 medics and found that cutting down working hours alone is not enough to reduce exhaustion and that change in the design of rotas was essential. The doctors who were questioned reported working between 40 to over 70 hours a week.
The study marked ten aspects of work patterns and sleep, which were used to arrive at a fatigue risk score for each participant.
Nearly 30% of respondents were marked 'excessively sleepy' during work.
25 % of them said that they had fallen asleep while driving their car home from work.
Two thirds admitted committing mistakes due to fatigue at some point during work. For four out of 10 of them, this had happened during the past six months.
The study found that sleepiness and errors occurred more because of night shifts and unplanned changes in rosters than the total number of hours worked.
For instance, while working long hours did cause sleepiness, it did not make one sleepy at the wheel or lead to a fatigue-related error.
Dr Phillip Gander, of Massey University's Sleep Research Centre, said: 'We conclude that long work hours are not the only aspect of work patterns that needs to be managed to reduce sleepiness and fatigue-related clinical errors among junior doctors.
'The findings support the view that a more comprehensive risk management approach is needed to reduce doctors' sleepiness and improve patient safety.'
Dr Masood Ahmed, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's junior doctors committee, said: 'When designing rotas, the NHS must recognise the importance of doctors having enough time to rest beforehand and afterwards.
'They must also provide adequate rest rooms. Unfortunately, too many are more focussed on saving money than improving patient safety, and are withdrawing rest facilities.'
A Department of Health spokesman said, "Working patterns must provide a sensible balance between supporting patient services, doctors working lives and their training.'