A draft proposal capping the overtime hours of doctors working in medical institutions was submitted during a recent meeting of a panel of experts at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. It condones up to 2,000 hours of overtime a year — or some 160 hours a month — for doctors at certain institutions providing crucial medical services to the local community, such as emergency treatment. While the logic behind the proposed cap is that such levels of overtime are vital to sustain the services provided at those institutions, 160 hours is twice the amount of overtime linked to death from overwork under a health ministry guideline. It must be carefully reviewed whether such a lax regulation is sufficient to protect the health of medical professionals.

The "work-style reform" legislation enacted last year set the first-ever legal limit on overtime, capping it at 720 hours a year and less than 100 hours a month, with the rule to be gradually enforced beginning this April. However, medical doctors will be exempt from the overtime cap for five years — given that under the medical practitioners law, doctors are in principle not allowed to reject patients' requests for treatment. The proposal shown to the health ministry panel concerns overtime regulations for doctors beginning in 2024.

According to the proposal, the total overtime hours for doctors in general will be set at 960 hours a year (including work on off-duty days) and less than 100 hours a month. However, it calls for a much looser overtime regulation for doctors working at certain designated institutions that provide emergency treatment, perinatal care and specialized care like advanced cancer treatment — at up to 1,900 to 2,000 hours annually — on condition that measures will be taken to ensure the health of such doctors, such as a requirement that they must have at least nine hours of rest between work shifts and never work more than 28 hours at a single stretch. The regulation is set to be in place through fiscal 2035.