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Doctor’s suicide after monthly overtime exceeded 200 hours recognized as work-related

Kyodo

The suicide of an obstetrics and gynecology resident physician in his mid-30s has been recognized by a Tokyo labor office as a work-related death caused by a psychological disorder that stemmed from long working hours, a lawyer representing the man’s family said Wednesday.

The man, who worked at a general hospital in the nation’s capital, had logged up to 208 hours of overtime in a month. The Shinagawa labor standard inspection office officially recognized the case as a work-related death on July 31.

A government labor reform panel adopted a final report in March calling for revised labor laws to cap overtime at 100 hours a month. Doctors, however, are exempt from the rules for the first five years after it takes effect, since physicians in principle cannot refuse to care for patients if requested. Hiroshi Kawahito, the lawyer for the family, said such exemptions should be retracted since they result in a failure to address and may even exacerbate karōshi, or death from overwork.

According to Kawahito, the man obtained a medical license in 2010 and began his residency at a general hospital in April 2013. He committed suicide in Tokyo on July 12, 2015.

According to information obtained by the family from electronic records at the hospital, the man logged between 143 to 208 hours of overtime during the six months before his suicide. He worked 173 hours of overtime in his final month.

Only a portion of the overtime wages due were paid, and the man only had five days off in six months. He was on night shift around four times a month, and sometimes worked over 30 hours straight on days when he had a day shift after his night shift.

The man’s parents applied for workers’ compensation insurance in May last year.

“Our son was crushed trying to fulfill his responsibility as a resident facing excessive work,” the parents said in a statement released through their lawyer. “Unless the work environment improves, such a tragedy will be repeated.”

The hospital said it could not comment at this point.

In May, the labor standards office recognized the January 2016 suicide of a female resident physician at Niigata City General Hospital as a work-related death caused by long working hours.

Meanwhile, a health ministry panel of experts started looking into the issue of overtime for doctors earlier this month.

Still, critics caution against calling for curbs on physicians’ working hours, especially in areas where doctors are scarce because their presence may be a matter of life or death for patients.

According to the ministry, 41.8 percent of hospital doctors worked more than 60 hours per week in 2012 — the highest among all workers. In fiscal 2016, workers’ insurance compensation was issued in four cases involving doctors whose deaths or suicides (including suicide attempts) were linked to long working hours, it said.

Working conditions for doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynecology are more demanding than those for other doctors because they have to remain on constant call for births as well as covering night shifts.

The man had lived near the hospital and was reportedly on call during his days off.

“Doctors tend to avoid obstetrics and gynecology because there is a higher risk of being sued when something goes wrong,” said an official at the Japan Federation of Medical Worker’s Unions. That is because patients and families “have high hopes for the births of their babies,” he added.