September 8, 2009 / 3:43 AM / in 8 years

Sleep-deprived Aussie doctors told to drink coffee

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Exhausted Australian doctors have been told to drink up to six cups of coffee a day to stay awake during extended shifts, building pressure on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to seize control of state-run hospitals.

A document on fatigue management released by health officials in Queensland state recommended doctors ingest 400 milligrams of caffeine to stay awake on the job, or the equivalent of six cups of coffee, after warnings that patients were dying.

"For management to just say go and have a cup of coffee and get over tiredness, it cheapens the whole issue," Australian Medical Association Vice President Steven Hambleton told Reuters.

"We are talking about serious issues here, and this is not just a serious suggestion at all. It can't be a weakness to say you're dog tired," he said.

The recommendation followed warnings from a union representing Queensland doctors this week that public hospital patients were dying because dangerously tired medics were being forced to work up to 80 hours without a break.

Australia's national center-left government is under pressure to seize control of the nation's ailing public hospital system, currently managed by state governments with federal funding support, in a $20.5 billion takeover.

With fresh elections a year away, repairing the health system was a key promise that helped underpin the 2007 victory by Labor over rival conservatives, with Rudd campaigning tirelessly on health and promising to fix public hospitals.

Rudd last month delayed a decision by six months, but said the option of a "full monty" takeover was still on the cards.

In advocating the use of caffeine by doctors, the health department document said that compared with other psychoactive drugs, such as the prescription-only stimulant modafinil, caffeine was more readily available and less expensive.

Salaried Doctors Queensland, representing medicos, countered that pumping doctors full of caffeine was not an effective way to deal with fatigue and doctor shortages, often filled in Australia through recruitment overseas.

Queensland Labor Health Minister Paul Lucas said the state was aiming to train more doctors and cap hospital work shifts at 12 hours over the next two years, but had no immediate solution to fatigue and staff shortages.

"If the doctors are not there, we can't do it," he said. "We can't say we'd rather not have it as it is and create doctors out of the air."

Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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