A CONTROVERSIAL scheme to slash the hours worked by junior doctors is being adopted across the UK after being successfully pioneered at four Merseyside hospitals.
Ministers claim that new shift patterns at the Royal Liverpool, Broadgreen, Arrowe Park and Clatterbridge hospitals have improved patient care.
Junior doctors are now sent home at night, ensuring they work no more than 56 hours a week, ending the punishing 100-hours-a-week-plus regime that has been a pattern in many hospitals throughout the UK.
The government was under pressure to reduce junior doctors' hours to meet new European rules, and implemented the "Hospital at Night" project as a trial at the four Merseyside hospitals and two other UK hospital trusts.
The Royal College of Physicians warned hospitals would struggle to guarantee the required 11 hours of rest after working a 13-hour shift.
However, a government study yesterday hailed the initiative both for improving patient care and tackling sleep deprivation among doctors.
Now the Merseyside experiment has been adopted at 24 hospitals across the UK, including Southport and Ormskirk Hospital trust and Mid Cheshire Hospitals trust. The project was implemented after it was revealed that junior doctors received four times as many calls at 5pm as they did at 5am.
The government study, conducted by the University of Manchester's business school, concludes: "The nursing and medical staff, of all grades, are clear that they would not wish to change back to their previous working methods
Simple changes included asking porters to find X-ray and test results and administrative staff to file medical notes - jobs often left to trainee doctors in the past.
Much non-urgent work moved from night to evening or daytime, with the team covering at night able to call in specialist expertise if necessary.
Fears that this would add to the workload proved unfounded, with staff able to work across different disciplines instead of describing the change as rewarding.
Staff said patient care had improved, with no increase in deaths and a positive - or at worst neutral - impact on doctors' education and training.
The report said: "Patients don't get missed or forgotten. In the past, it was reported that tired doctors may have gone to bed before seeing patients."
It added: "Doctors and nurses can spend more time with their patients as doctors are not distracted by bleeps."
The European Working Time Directive cut maximum weekly hours for junior doctors to 56 from August last year and will set a new ceiling of 48 in 2009.
Patrick Chu, clinical director of haematology at the Royal Liverpool, said: "The Hospital at Night model is a very good working model for the full implementation of the directive in 2009.
"It also has much wider benefits including training more highly skilled nurses, improving communications, team building and time management."