Can You Drink Alcohol When You Are On Call?

07 Dec 2016

sara bird

by Dr Sara Bird

Festive food and drink

A recent Tribunal hearing examined this issue. The Obstetrician avoided a finding of unsatisfactory professional conduct, despite drinking 5.85 standard drinks in a period of three and a half hours when he was on call. Two expert Obstetricians gave evidence that such conduct could be described as significantly below the standard reasonably expected of any medical practitioner, whatever his or her level of experience.

However, the particulars of the complaint against the Obstetrician were not formulated such that the consumption of that amount of alcohol in itself constituted unsatisfactory professional conduct. The complaint was that the Obstetrician consumed alcohol to a degree that impaired, or could have impaired, his skills and judgement while on call and/or while at work. At the Tribunal hearing, no evidence of his impairment at work was established.

The Obstetrician had attended a dinner party where he consumed the alcohol. During the course of the evening, he was called to the local hospital to review a patient in labour who had refused to see the on-site registrar due to a previous disagreement with the registrar about being induced.

At the hospital, the midwife smelled alcohol on the Obstetrician’s breath but did not believe he was intoxicated. The Obstetrician also had an argument with the patient’s mother about whether the patient should proceed with a vaginal birth in view of the size of the baby and the risk of shoulder dystocia. In the course of their “robust discussion”, the mother called the Obstetrician an “ignoramus” and he described her as a “confronting woman”. Ultimately, the patient went on to have an uncomplicated vaginal delivery.

A complaint was subsequently made to the hospital about the Obstetrician’s consumption of alcohol by one of the other people at the dinner party, who was also a doctor.

Among the experts who gave evidence at the hearing, there was no consensus about whether a doctor could consume alcohol when on call. One expert stated:

It is common practice for senior Obstetricians to have one or two drinks when on call for their private practice, especially when there is not a patient in labour. Private practice may involve being on call for weeks without a break. Most private Obstetricians would or should refrain from drinking alcohol when they have a patient in labour. I am unclear whether it is acceptable to drink small amounts (or how to define this) when on call for a private hospital – where a call can come at any time. It would be a reasonable assertion to suggest that one or two drinks – possibly equating to the safe driving limit – is acceptable; however I am unaware of a specific requirement or guideline in this respect.

Are there guidelines at your hospital about drinking alcohol when on call?

Do you think it is reasonable to drink a limited amount of alcohol when on call?

If so, how much is too much?


This blog contains general information only. We recommend you contact your medical defence organisation or insurer when you require specific advice in relation to medico-legal matters.



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