South African Medical Association

New armbands shine spotlight on doctors' working hours

For some time now, the South African Medical Association (SAMA) together with its Junior Doctors, JUDASA, have bemoaned the long working hours of doctors, notably junior doctors. It's a situation that impacts upon both doctors and their patients.

This was highlighted recently when a junior doctor, Dr Ilne Markwat, died in a tragic collision after she allegedly fell asleep at the wheel of her car following a lengthy period on-call. While efforts are underway to deal with doctors' often punishing working hours, SAMA believes this is only part of the problem. The other, says SAMA vice-chairperson Prof Mark Sonderup, is the available pool of jobs for doctors.

Even with the new suggested regulation by the Western Cape Health Department that doctors do not work more than 24 hours - planned for implementation from January 2017 - there will likely be too few doctors for the given workload. The anticipated benefit may not have the desired effect unless post numbers are significantly increased.


To highlight this problem, SAMA is launching a new campaign. Doctors will now wear colour-coded armbands to demonstrate how long they have been on shift.

A green armband means the doctor has worked less than 24 consecutive hours. This means the medic is still alert and able to perform optimally.

A doctor wearing an orange armband has worked more than 24 hours, while a red armband means the doctor has worked more than 30 consecutive hours.

Obviously, doctors with red armbands are a danger to patients (and themselves) and must be allowed to rest before being assigned more patients.

The SAMA campaign makes it easier to identify doctors who have worked longer hours. It is also a visible reminder that South Africa should employ more doctors to manage their workload.

The DA Gauteng Shadow MEC for Health noted recently that the biggest vacancies among doctors in Gauteng are:

  • Medical Officer Grade 1: 151
  • Registrar (Medical): 110
  • Medical Officer (Community Service): 78
  • Medical Specialist Grade 1: 60
  • Medical Officer (Intern): 58

There are also 17 vacancies for clinical unit and department heads.

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