HOSPITALS are being told to reduce the working hours of junior doctors following the death of a young medic on her drive home from work.
Health Secretary Alex Neil will announce today that NHS managers must end all rotas that make doctors work seven night shifts in a row and more than seven days back-to-back.
The move comes in response to a campaign initiated by Brian Connelly, the father of Dr Lauren Connelly, who was killed in an accident on the M8 after seven intense weeks in her first job.
Mr Connelly told The Herald last year that 23-year-old Dr Connelly had worked 10 days in a row on commencing work at Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greenock and had completed another 12-day run of more than 107 hours in the weeks before she died. He believes his daughter was suffering from accumulated fatigue at the time of her fatal crash.
Outlining the action being taken, Mr Neil and Paul Gray, NHS Scotland director general for health and social care and chief executive, will echo Mr Connelly's own words when they say they want not just the letter but "the spirit" of the European Working Time Directive (EWTD), which should limit junior doctors' working hours, to be implemented in hospitals.
Until recently, official government responses to Mr Connelly's concerns stated that all health boards were meeting the requirements of the EWTD, which restricts junior doctors' hours to 48 a week. However, health boards achieve this by averaging working hours over six months.
Freedom of Information requests lodged by The Herald revealed some doctors were rostered to work more than 90 hours in a week.
Mr Gray, who took up his post at the end of last year, said: "I said that I would take this matter very seriously and I have done this in consultation with partner organisations, the British Medical Association and the management steering group because I believe it is important for patient care and for the safety of our staff that we provide working conditions that allow everyone to perform at their best."
In a letter to NHS chief executives, sent yesterday, Mr Gray said no junior doctor should work seven full night shifts in a row from next February and no junior doctor should work more than seven day shifts in a row by 2016.
Hospitals must also provide rest facilities that doctors can use during or after shifts.
Mr Neil said external assessments would be carried out to ensure "that these actions are being taken forward by NHS boards and that junior doctors see the improvements in their work-life balance that we all desire."
Mr Connelly, who has met Mr Gray, said: "Since I first raised the issue of junior doctors' excessive working hours, I believe that I have detected an acknowledgement among senior health professionals and senior NHS managers that there is a problem - and recognition of this is the first step to getting the problem sorted."
He described Mr Gray's letter as a step in the right direction, but added: "A lot more still needs to be done to reduce junior doctors' working hours to eradicate the excessive working hours they are required to work routinely. I hope further improvements can be made to reduce the risks to junior doctors and their patients."
Dr David Reid, chairman of the BMA's Scottish Junior Doctors Committee, said there was growing evidence that arduous shift patterns affected the safety of patients and how well doctors performed.
He welcomed the action on night shifts, but added: "Many junior doctors still work a combination of both day and night shifts, which for some means they can be working up to 90 hours a week. It will be a challenge for NHS employers and the Scottish Government to achieve the target to end long stretches of day shifts."
Mr Neil said: "Scotland's NHS must continue to attract world-class staff so that it can provide truly world-class services for patients. We have already increased the number of staff working within NHS Scotland and are now focusing on ensuring that they have the best possible working practices."
Dr Connelly died in September 2011, and when Mr Connelly spoke out in The Herald about her working hours last year it prompted a number of other doctors and their relatives to raise similar concerns.
Earlier this year Ian Ritchie, a surgeon and chairman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland, also called for a rethink of the workload placed on junior doctors.