Livin' on the MDedge

Primary care now offering physicians the 26.7-hour day


Taking ‘not enough hours in the day’ to new heights

It’s no secret that there’s a big doctor shortage in the United States. Going through medical school is long, expensive, and stressful, and it’s not like those long, stressful hours stop once you finally do get that degree. There is, however, an excellent reason to take that dive into doctorhood: You’ll gain mastery over time itself.

A study from the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and Imperial College London has revealed the truth. By using data pulled from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers found that primary care physicians who see an average number of patients and follow all the current national guidelines for preventive care, chronic disease care, and acute care – plus administrative tasks – must work 26.7 hours a day. That works out to 14.1 hours of preventive care, 7.2 hours of chronic disease care, 2.2 hours of acute care, and 3.2 hours of documentation and inbox management.

an infinity clock showing an endless spiral of time, with no clock hands liseykina/thinkstockphotos

Astute readers may note that this is a bit more than the traditional 8-hour workday. It is, in fact, more hours than there actually are in a day. As it turns out, Doctor Strange is more of a documentary than …

Hang on, we’re receiving word that doctors are not in fact wizards who can bend time and space to their will, nor are they sitting on a stash of Time-Turners they saved from the Ministry of Magic before Voldemort destroyed them all. They are, according to the study, overworked and overburdened with too many things and too little time. This is why outcomes haven’t improved despite technological advances and why burnout is so common. We’d be burned out too, having to work temporally impossible hours.

The study authors suggested a team-based approach to medicine that would spread the workload out to nurses, physician assistants, dietitians, etc., estimating that about two-thirds of what a primary care physician does can be handled by someone else. A team-based approach would reduce the physician’s required hours down to 9.3 hours a day, which is at least physically possible. It’s either that or we make the day longer, which sounds like the plot of an episode of Futurama. Swap overwork for global warming and a longer day for a longer year and it is actually the plot of an episode of Futurama.

After a hard day of thinking, brains need their rest

Do you ever feel like you have no more capacity to think or make any more decisions after a long day at work? Do you need a few extra cups of coffee to even make it through the day, even though you’re mostly just sitting around talking and typing? Have we got the research for you: Mental exhaustion is an actual thing. Imagine that double whammy of having a job that’s physically and mentally demanding.

A recent study in Current Biology explained why we feel so exhausted after doing something mentally demanding for several hours. Over that time, glutamate builds up in synapses of the prefrontal cortex, which affects our decision making and leads to cognitive lethargy. Your brain eventually becomes more interested in tasks that are less mentally fatiguing, and that’s probably why you’re reading this LOTME right now instead of getting back to work.

“Our findings show that cognitive work results in a true functional alteration – accumulation of noxious substances – so fatigue would indeed be a signal that makes us stop working but for a different purpose: to preserve the integrity of brain functioning,” senior author Mathias Pessiglione of Pitié-Salpêtrière University, Paris, said in a written statement.

A woman studying ©

The group of researchers conducted studies by using magnetic resonance spectroscopy to look at two groups of people over the course of a workday: One group had mentally tasking jobs and one didn’t. Those who had to think harder for their jobs had more signs of fatigue, such as reduced pupil dilation and glutamate in synapses of the prefrontal cortex. They also looked for more rewards that required less thinking.

For those whose mentally exhausting jobs probably won’t get better or change, the researchers suggest getting as much rest as possible. Those who don’t have that option will have to continue drinking those 7 cups of coffee a day. ... and reading LOTME.

Hmm, might be a new tagline for us in there somewhere. LOTME: Tired brains love us? When you’re too tired to think, think of LOTME? You can’t spell mental exhaustion without L-O-T-M-E?


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