July 9, 2008

Tom Hanks will kill you.

An article on CNN.com caught my eye the other day:

Man designing Camry hybrid works self to death

One of the main highlights of the short article is the following blurb:

"The man who died was aged 45 and had been under severe pressure as the lead engineer in developing a hybrid version of Toyota's blockbuster Camry line, said Mikio Mizuno, the lawyer representing his wife. The man's identity is being withheld at the request of his family, who continue to live in Toyota City where the company is based.

In the two months up to his death, the man averaged more than 80 hours of overtime per month, according to Mizuno."

This is not a unique occurrence in Japan. It happens with enough frequency that they actually have a term for it: Karōshi... occupational sudden death from overworking.

Now time for some basic arithmetic. Assuming they are talking about 80 hours of overtime a month in accordance with the Japanese work week (46 hours per week, thank you wikipedia), that means that the unfortunate Toyota employee from the article worked (46/7)*30 + 80 hours a month... ~277 hours.

Now take your average US resident. Under the new work week restrictions, US residents are "limited" to 80 hours per week (though many work more secretly to gain more experience or due to underlying program expectations... SSSSSHHHHHHH). (80/7)*30 hours a month... ~343 hours.

Note this post is in no way meant to belittle the unfortunate tragedy of this man's death. But it does offer a unique insight into the under-the-radar life that people in medicine live. Everyone I talk to outside of medicine understands and sympathizes on some level with the long hours of the field and realizes that a 36 hour shift is not good for the decision making processes. But if a resident were to die from overworking, I don't think it would illicit more than a curious yawn from the general public. Everyone I talk to outside of medicine also expects perfection from their doctors. At first glance these two things, sympathy to mistakes and expectations of perfection, seem utterly incompatible.

Of course the conundrum is that residents do not work so many hours simply as some form of primitive medicinal hazing ritual. Residents work so much because they have to. The Medical Knowledge Ocean is vast, and a single resident but a small speck upon a life raft on it (Wilson sometimes accompanying). Even cutting resident hours down to 80 hours per week, which some professions would be considered ridiculous, we have already seen a greater amount of graduating residents seeking fellowship feeling that they have not had enough training to enter individual practice on their own. With talk of a further reduced 56 hour work week for residents, the debate between the "enough hours to stay sane" vs. "enough hours to not become Dr. Death" debate has gained even further ammunition. The benefits of work hour restriction are obvious. More balanced and well adjusted residents. Less medical mistakes due to sleep deprivation. Candy canes and bubbles and rainbows and shit. The drawbacks are perhaps less obvious but just as important. Necessary longer periods of training on an already exhausting path. Losing the lessons learned from being in the hospital to follow patients from admission all the way through the course of treatment. More time with that "interest" ticker steadily clicking away on student loans.

Personally, since I am firmly plopped on the "baby" end of the medical student age spectrum, the idea of extending residency another 1-2 years in favor of more sane working hours appeals to a certain side of me. After all, whether I am 29 or 31 when I leave residency is apples and apples to me. But the path of medical training is a long and arduous path, and I can certainly sympathize with my older classmates who find the idea of even 12 more months of residency truly gross. And 56 hours doesn't seem like enough time a week to learn what you need to in medicine.

Of course, its easy to spin the wheels in the ol' noggin about this topic when my days still consist of a schedule largely under my own control. It will be interesting to see how my opinions change as I'm thrown into said Medical Knowledge Ocean and told to survive, with the nearest island far enough away it will take 80 hours of paddling a day to reach it in 5 years.

But the idea of residents dropping dead in the hallways, being picked off like flies, in an epidemic of karōshi is a funny image to think of. In a morbid, real kind of way.

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