Junior doctors say we should be worried about the safety of our hospitals. Should we?
Junior doctors across the country have been marching in London against proposed changes to their contracts to create 7-days a week NHS. They are furious with the proposals and have threatened to strike, warning that we should be worried about the safety of our hospitals.
Anyone who has been a patient in hospital knows that it can be a nerve-wracking time. As a patient, you place a great deal of personal trust in both the doctors who take care of you and the system within which they work. The concern is that those very same doctors are raising concerns about the safety of that system. Doctors have been warning for a long time that the NHS is at breaking point and that staffing shortages and budgetary constraints can cause mistakes and injuries. The changes proposed by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s will, they argue, stretch things too far and lead to more overtired, underpaid doctors and ultimately an exodus of medics abroad.
A selection of doctors interviewed by the BBC said that the proposed changes were unfair and would remove the safeguards designed to ensure that they are not working unsafe hours. The changes, they argue, would penalise emergency doctors and ultimately put patients at risk. It is well known that the NHS is already struggling to retain its staff and there is a real concern that these measures could end up causing many to leave, resulting in dangerously low staffing levels or a disproportionate reliance on expensive locum staff.
Another criticism levelled by the doctors working on the frontline of the NHS is that the changes will negatively impact invaluable research projects into diseases like cancer and dementia. Proposed pay freezes for doctors undertaking research is hardly an incentive and may lead to a reduction in invaluable research into conditions that affect us all. Doctors with families would also suffer at the hands of the changes – as they would be required to work longer hours, often returning home late at night.
The Government has said that the changes have been misrepresented in the media and that it has no wish to cut services. Instead, it argues, the plan is simply to restructure the existing system to benefit doctors and patients alike. It argues that existing rules force hospitals to roster less cover over weekends and that this leads to unnecessary deaths. The aim, Mr Hunt states, is to provide the same high standard of care at weekends that is provided during the week – a ‘7-day NHS’.
But the doctors most affected by these measures remain unconvinced. If the Health Secretary cannot persuade them in time, we may be heading for the first industrial action taken by the British Medical Association and its members for 40 years.
So what exactly is the Government proposing?
- 11% pay rise
- 25% cut in hours classed as unsociable
- 72-hour limit on max working week – down from 91 hours
The 11% basic pay rise is potentially attractive, but it comes hand in hand with curbs to other elements of their pay package. The government has pledged that only 1% of doctors will lose out, namely those that work lots of extra hours and are therefore entitled to extra payments. But those in the profession worry that that figure could be misleading. As time goes by, and the changes take effect, the fear is that many more could suffer.
There are passionate arguments on both sides of the debate. But with our hospitals under increasing financial strain, with staffing levels worryingly low and many vital services facing cuts, can we really afford to ignore the concerns of those that are working on the frontline every day?
By Senior Associate, Jonthan Zimmern
A barrister in our medical negligence and personal injury department, Jonathan Zimmern has been dealing with complex and high value cases for over 7 years, acting for those injured through medical negligence or personal injury accidents.