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In a recent lawsuit, two obstetricians at Nara Prefectural Hospital asked for retrospective overtime pay of about ¥92 million for their hours on night and holiday shifts in 2004 and 2005. The Nara District Court in late April ordered the prefectural government to pay them some ¥15 million.

The hospital regarded night and holiday duty as light work, which it assumed consisted mainly of “waiting time.” The doctors were therefore only paid an allowance of ¥20,000 for each shift. During the 2004-2005 period, the two doctors each worked about 200 of these shifts. However, these shifts included assisting childbirths and treating women with high-risk deliveries and not just “waiting time.” The court said this work was “not separate” from normal work and that the night or holiday shifts should have been recognized as overtime work.

In September 2008, the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology made public an interim report on the working hours of “ob-gyns” at hospitals. Covering 163 such doctors, it shows that they were at the hospitals for an average 295 hours a month — 178 hours for normal work and 117 hours for extra work. The maximum hours reported were 415 hours.

The doctors, whose average age was 42.1 and of whom 27 percent were women, were on call for an average of 139 hours, each working 4.1 night duty shifts and 1.3 holiday shifts. Such harsh working conditions have resulted from the nationwide shortage of obstetricians. According to the health ministry, the number of ob-gyns at the end of 2006 was about 12 percent less than in 1996.

Recently Aiiku Hospital, a perinatal care center in Tokyo for high-risk pregnancies, asked the metropolitan government to end its emergency 24-hour status because, to maintain its 24-hour rotation of doctors, it had to rely on making them work overtime, which broke labor standards law. It could only solve the problem by contracting part-time doctors.

The government should not waste any more time in taking measures to improve the working conditions of obstetricians by increasing their numbers. The least it should do is to raise their wages and ensure they are paid fairly.

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