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2,000-hour upper limit on annual overtime proposed for doctors providing regional care

Surgeons perform stomach cancer surgery at the Tokyo Metropolitan Komagome Hospital in the capital's Bunkyo Ward in this file photo. (Mainichi/Takashi Morita)

TOKYO -- The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry proposed at a panel of experts on Jan. 11 to limit the overtime hours of doctors working for key regional medical service providers to between 1,900 and 2,000 hours a year.

The panel will discuss the proposal and determine the upper limits for medical practitioners in three categories by the end of the current fiscal year ending in March 2019. The three categories are: ordinary doctors working at medical institutions; those working for institutions providing core regional medical services; and young doctors who are trying to improve their specialty and expertise.

Under the proposal, overtime hours for regular doctors would be limited to 960 hours a year, or 80 hours a month. Death from overwork is generally recognized as a work-related accident if the person has been working 80 hours or more of overtime a month.

According to a survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, however, about 20,000 doctors working for hospitals, or roughly 10 percent of the total, do at least 160 hours of overtime work a month. Because of this, uniform upper limits on overtime could seriously affect regional medical services.

The ministry has therefore proposed to limit overtime hours for doctors working for core regional medical institutions to between 1,900 and 2,000 hours a year, which translates to roughly 160 hours a month, as a tentative measure that would last until fiscal 2035. After that, the upper limit would be lowered to 960 hours a year.

The ministry stopped short of proposing upper limits on overtime for younger doctors who want to work without restrictions on their work hours in pursuit of higher expertise and skills.

Employers would be required to take measures to ensure the health of doctors who work longer overtime than ordinary doctors. Specifically, medical institutions would be required to secure breaks of at least nine hours between their shifts and limit unbroken work periods to 28 hours.

Meanwhile, the ministry intends to create a specific definition for medical institutions providing core regional medical services, such as responding to urgent medical needs.

Work-style reform legislation that comes into force in April 2019 sets the upper limit on overtime for regular workers to 720 hours a year and 960 hours including work on days off.

However, medical practitioners are not subject to these legal limits considering the possible adverse impact that restrictions on their overtime hours could have on medical services.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry intends to restrict overtime for doctors from fiscal 2024, and the panel of experts is discussing specific measures to that end.

(Japanese original by Masahiro Sakai, Medical Welfare News Department)

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