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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

versão On-line ISSN 2078-5135
versão impressa ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.101 no.9 Cape Town Set. 2011




Burnout of junior doctors and skills retention



To the Editor: Stodel and Stewart-Smith1 paint a dismal picture: 95% of junior doctors at the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Rondebosch, Cape Town, intend to leave at the end of their rotation.

However, the 95% is derived from only 22 of the 39 junior doctors who were mailed a questionnaire. The findings should be expressed as a proportion of all 39 junior doctors - an intention to treat analysis. Using 39 instead of 22 as the denominator implies that half of the doctors surveyed were burnt out; still a cause for concern, but a more credible number.

Senior house officers (SHOs) come to the Children's Hospital to learn, and to become competent and self-confident in managing seriously ill children, which is stressful for inexperienced doctors. Registrars are more experienced, training as specialists. To group them together as junior doctors is odd. The authors assert that poor working conditions and administrative inefficiency and incompetence cause unacceptable levels of emotional stress that poses a risk to patients. But this does not follow from the results, which are misinterpreted, and statistical measures and graphs do not support their serious assertion that children are placed at risk.

If dissatisfaction were great, would repeated reminders have been necessary to elicit only 22 (56%) responses from 39 eligible junior doctors? To say that this 'response rate represents a 90% confidence interval with a 10% margin of error' is meaningless and distracts from the fact that only just over half ultimately replied. Perhaps the junior doctors did not understand what the questionnaire was about because, to reduce bias, 'the questionnaire was presented as a survey on skills retention and did not make any mention of burnout.' I doubt whether that could disguise the fact that the questionnaire was about stress and dissatisfaction.

Conclusions about 'recruitment, improved management and planning, increased support, mentorship and a more empathetic administration' come presumably from the 'semi-structured' interviews of 4 selected registrars, and therefore reflect the opinion of only 10% of 39 eligible junior doctors.

That 95% of junior doctors intended leaving after their rotation does not confirm that they were discontented and burnt out. Contracts determine when junior doctors leave: for SHOs, 6 months to a maximum of 1 year, and registrars at the end of their training period. Had junior doctors been asked whether they would like to remain if a post were available, could not very different results have been obtained?

Considering ethics: how was the journal's ethical requirement for Research Ethics Committee approval circumvented? Accepting that the phrase 'business ethics' is a contradiction in terms, it still comes as a shock to discover how insensitive to ethical concerns the academic business community seems to be.

Junior doctors are often exploited and work under unfavourable circumstances without proper supervision and support in State hospitals - particularly when away from the big centres. It is puzzling why burnout was studied at the Children's Hospital, a better-staffed and -resourced teaching institution.

If the authors' intention was to help the junior doctors, they have done them a disservice by presenting flawed data. Their fatal error is the title phrases 'junior doctors' and 'skills retention'. Explicitly defining these abstract terms would have made it obvious that they are incompatible concepts. Junior doctors are students employed on defined period contracts - similar to articled clerks in law and accountancy. Skills retention refers to conserving the permanently employed skilled workforce. Mistaking students for skilled permanent staff has portrayed the Children's Hospital's stunning success in the training of health care professionals as a problem.

Dr Richard Asher2 warned of the trap that the authors fell into: 'It is often helpful to straight thinking to pause and consider what we are meaning by a word, for we may find it is playing tricks on us';3 and that 'with the aid of abstract terms it is easy to parade such a brave show of words in front of one's thoughts that it is extremely difficult to see if there is any idea behind them.'4


Max Klein
Division of Paediatric Pulmonology
Department of Paediatrics and Child Health
University of Cape Town


1. Stodel JM, Stewart-Smith A. The influence of burnout on skills retention of junior doctors at Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital: A case study. S Afr Med J 2011;101(2):115-118.         [ Links ]

2. Richard Asher - Wikipedia. (accessed 25 May 2011).         [ Links ]

3. Asher R. Straight and crooked thinking in medicine. Br Med J 1954;2(4885):460-462.         [ Links ]

4. Asher R. Richard Asher Talking Sense. London: Pitman, 1972.         [ Links ]

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