By Joe Dyton, WCI Contributor
Many full-time workers are accustomed to a traditional 40-hour workweek—five days a week, Monday through Friday, typically from 9am-5pm. Such a schedule does not exist for a number of professions, however—especially service-based jobs where workers are needed in the evening. That can include physicians.
Sure, some doctors who work in a private practice may keep more “standard” office hours, but even they might need to be on call for their patients. Meanwhile, doctors who work in hospitals could see their shifts last well into the evening and overnight, depending on their patient load, emergencies, and coverage requirements.
In other words, the number of hours a doctor works can vary. Keep reading for a closer look at the workweek schedule for physicians.
Do Doctors Work 9-5?
A physician’s ability, or opportunity, to work a traditional 9-to-5 workweek depends on a number of factors. Their specialty is one of the biggest determining factors. Physicians who work in fields such as internal medicine, pediatrics, dermatology, psychiatry, and ophthalmology are better positioned to work a standard workweek if that's what they choose.
Meanwhile, other medical specialties do not lend themselves to such a fixed schedule. Any physician who cannot always see patients “by appointment” is less likely to maintain a 9-to-5 schedule. For example, an ER doctor works when emergencies come through, which is any time of day. The same is true for OB/GYN’s—they work when their patient goes into labor or has a medical emergency.
And even when they’re not in an operating room or in their office, these physicians in high-pressure fields know they could be called upon at any time to treat a patient—they’re working even when they aren’t working.
On average, physicians work 50 hours per week, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2023. Along with treating patients, doctors’ work includes charting, doing paperwork, and completing administrative work.
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Which Doctors Work the Most Hours?
Long shifts aren’t uncommon for many physicians. Forty hours is the minimum for doctors in a week, but many often work more than 50. According to Medscape’s 2019 National Physician Burnout, Depression & Suicide Report, 77% of general surgery physicians said they worked more than 51 hours per week, followed by 76% of urologists. Cardiology (72%), pulmonary medicine (68%), and nephrology (68%) were also among the specialties that surpassed 50 hours a week, according to the survey.
Surgeons and resident physicians also log some of the highest amounts of hours among doctors, according to the Rockford Health System. Residents can work up to an average of 80 hours per week. The aforementioned general surgeons work an average of 60.78 hours. Meanwhile, orthopedic surgeons work an average of 54.17 hours per week, and plastic surgeons operate just under 50 hours per week.
There are 16 medical specialties that work more than the profession’s average of 50 hours per work, according to Medscape:
Do Doctors Work 24-Hour Shifts?
Yes, doctors can work 24-hour shifts. They are not on their feet, working for the duration of the shift, however. The 24 hours alludes to how long they’re on call. Physicians are permitted to rest when they can find time during this shift, but they must be ready to go if or when they are called to attend to a patient. Doctors can be expected to treat and monitor patients; answer questions from nurses, patients, and the patient's family members; and administer medication during this time.
The 24-hour shift is not new for experienced physicians. It is relatively new for first-year medical residents, however. Up until 2017, first-year residents’ shifts were capped at 16 hours. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education said it hoped the changes would avoid confusion in care that can occur when a physician hands off a patient to another after a shift change, the New York Times reported at the time.
This “all-day” shift is not without its critics, however—at least when it comes to first-year physicians. The purpose of permitting newly minted doctors to work 24-hour shifts is to ensure seamless, continuous care. But Dr. Michael Carome, director of the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, said at the time that the proposal puts medical residents’ and their patients’ lives and health at risk because physicians could be making life-or-death decisions while potentially being sleep-deprived.
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Do Doctors Have Free Time?
Medicine is a demanding career, but it’s possible for physicians to have a work-life balance. It’s just that the life-work balance might look different than it does for people who work in other fields. Many doctors work long hours, but they do not work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The key is for physicians to make the most of the free time they have when they actually have it.
Maximizing that free time is often easier said than done for doctors, however. Unlike other professions, a physician’s shift doesn’t necessarily end at the scheduled time. For example, if a doctor is scheduled to be at the hospital until 7:00, but their patient gets sick at 6:00, they’re most likely going to stay longer than the hour left in their shift to care for them.
The amount of hours physicians work often depends on their specialty. The same is true when it comes to how much free time a doctor has. All medical specialties come with some level of stress, but some are more stressful than others. For example, psychiatrists are one of the least stressful medical specialties partly because they can conduct virtual sessions and set their own hours, allowing them to carve out a good amount of free time. Similarly, plastic surgeons have the ability to schedule procedures on their timeline and around their lifestyle because their surgeries aren't emergent.
If you’re thinking of becoming a physician and want to know how much you’ll be working or are just curious about how many hours a doctor logs in a given week, there’s no concrete answer. The nature of the profession can lead to long workdays, and people can get sick or injured at any time of the day. While 50 hours is the average workweek for doctors, a physician’s specialty is the best indicator of how much they work in a given week. The more likely an emergency can occur in a doctor’s field and the more time they spend at a hospital vs. their own practice, the longer hours you can expect them to be working.
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