Sandy Rovner raises an important issue {"The Battle Over Limiting Residents' Hours," Health, Oct. 16} in discussing the danger of requiring doctors to work 36 hours at a time. I, like many of my medical colleagues, know all too well the misery and exhaustion of working under these conditions. Anyone who tells you that these hours are necessary to be well trained in the realities of modern medicine is either vindictive or deceiving himself.

In my training in anesthesiology, I have been required to practice an extremely stressful medical specialty at 30-hour shifts. As an intern and medical student, I would frequently be required to care for the ill at periods of 40 hours at a time. There is no question in my mind that care and compassion are strongly compromised when one's ability to stay awake is affected.

It would be close to insane to suggest that a regulatory body would permit an airline pilot to fly a plane full of people after having having worked in the cockpit for 30 or so hours. Similarly, to suggest that a policeman or fireman be asked to do the same would no doubt elicit a strong reaction. And yet, since the inception of medical training programs in the United States, physicians have worked with this "I did it, and so must you" mentality to the detriment, I feel, of patient and doctor alike.

Proponents of the present system make these vague and heroic claims of the necessity of this long-hours practice. They often refer to the magical "continuity of care" entity as a prime reason for this system. Well, in my experience, nurses are more involved with continuity of care than any doctor I've known, and yet they work eight, 12 or, rarely, 16 hours at a time. Besides, continuity of care is frequently impossible in our busier urban medical centers, because the admissions and requirements of new patients are often at the expense of patients already admitted or being cared for. When a doctor must admit, examine, evaluate tests, write orders for and do complicated procedures on six to 10 new patients per night, there is no time for continuity of care. There is barely enough time and energy left to handle the present workload.

These hours have to go. People say that there isn't enough money to cover the work. Well, let's find the money rather than continue a practice that puts the patient and physician at risk.

The next time, God forbid, you or a loved one are injured in an accident and rushed to surgery, ask your anesthesiologist or surgeon how long he or she has been awake and working. You may not like the answer.

DAVID J. SHERER Washington