What it’s like to be a junior doctor right now

The situation for junior doctors right now is a complicated one. Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, wanted to impose new contracts on junior doctors. They, in response, threatened to strike. Chairman Johann Malawanna of the BMA Junior Doctors Committee, said that the reason behind the strike action was straightforward – it would force negotiation.

Jeremy Hunt has now agreed to temporarily put his plans for the new contracts to one side. So the strikes are off – for now.

We spoke to junior doctor Louise Howitt to get her perspective on the situation.

1. What are your views as a junior doctor on the current situation?

The current situation is very difficult. Junior doctors never asked for a change in their contract- we are very used to working long hours, including weekends and nights. We accept that this is a necessary part of the job we do and the service we provide. However, the government’s proposal was for a contract which could mean longer hours, with less safeguards in place to keep patients safe.

Currently, our ‘basic’ contracts are based on a working week which runs from Monday to Friday (though we all do far more than this).

Under the new contracts Jeremy Hunt wants to impose, those ‘normal’ working hours would be extended to Saturday and to include evenings, meaning doctors will be spread more thinly across the week. No extra doctors would be provided to help cover this. As well as meaning doctors are spread more thinly, it would also affect our pay- we are currently paid extra for working a certain number of weekends and extra hours, however if Saturday and evenings count as part of normal hours, we wouldn’t see any extra at all.

Unfortunately, this would have a bigger effect on the doctors who do more out-of-hours work – like the doctors in A&E, who are vital to the service, and who are already suffering from undersubscription (no one wants to do it as it is an incredibly tough job!)

As well as all this, currently there are rules which ensure that any doctor who is regularly working hours over their rota will incur a charge to the hospital which is employing them- this is due to be scrapped under the new contract so that there is no way to monitor how many extra hours a doctor is doing.

Almost all of the Royal Colleges (the groups which oversee the trainees and doctors of certain specialties in the UK), have opposed what the government is suggesting, and have said that they think it’s dangerous for patients.

I think it’s really demoralising to find yourself fighting a government which is not listening to you, not listening to your union, and not listening to your royal colleges. It feels like a very personal attack on how hard we work, and in a lot of papers we are being made out to be lazy, not wanting to work weekends, or wanting a pay rise. None of these things are true.

2. The strikes could still happen in the New Year. What would the strike action actually involve?

In terms of what this would mean, that a lot of ‘elective’ things (like clinics or non emergency surgeries) will be cancelled on these days. However, any emergencies will still be seen and consultants will be on hand. There WILL be doctors in the hospital if strikes do happen. An important thing to point out is that if anything out of the ordinary were to happen on a strike day- for example a road traffic accident, or a terrorist attack, doctors would of course come back to work and help if they were needed. Doctors would either be at the picket line or taking part in another BMA activity- they won’t be at home watching TV.

3. Would you strike?

Unfortunately at the moment I am not working full-time, as I am taking time out to do a masters degree. This contract comes into place in August 2016, which is when I start back in full-time work, which is why I care about it as much as the next doctor. Although I wouldn’t be able to strike, I am fully supporting those who will, which includes many of my friends and my husband.

4. Why did you decide you wanted to become a doctor?

I think deciding to become a doctor is a complicated decision which lots of people don’t entirely understand when they make it! But now that I am here, the reason I carry on doing it is for the people you are treating. You are let into people’s lives at a time when things are really difficult for them- and you have a chance to actually change things for them. That’s something that you don’t get with many jobs. It’s constantly challenging- even when you think it will be a ‘normal’ day, something will surprise you, and that’s why we do it.

5. What would your advice be to an aspiring junior doctor or someone thinking of pursuing a career in medicine?

This is hard. There’s a lot of negativity out there at the moment- a lot of people who will tell you not to do it. Medicine is hard work, there’s no two ways about it. You’ll work weekend after weekend, you’ll do 14 hour night shifts, you’ll miss important family events, and you’ll sometimes wonder why you did it. But it’s a wonderful skill and once you are qualified, you are able to do with that what you wish. There is scope to create a career which encompasses the things which make you ‘tick’, if you go about looking for it. You are working for the public sector, so you have to accept that your perks are going to come in the form of hugs off patients, rather than meals out on expenses. But those hugs can be totally worth it.

6. What does the future look like for junior doctors, do you think?

I think that really depends on what happens now. If this contract goes through, people will leave the NHS. Thousands of doctors are already emigrating to countries like Australia where they have a far better standard of living. If more people leave, our NHS will just fall apart. If we can negotiate this contract, then I think we will come out of this stronger than ever. This situation has united doctors of all specialties in a way that I have never seen before. And that’s why this strike matters.

Now what?