Thousands of junior doctors staged a historic strike in England on Tuesday, protesting against an “unsafe” contract government wants to impose on them.
The two day-strike by over 45,000 junior doctors — qualified medical practitioners who have up to 10 years of experience — is an unprecedented event in the history of the British National Health Service.
England has over 55,000 junior doctors, who make up about a third of all medical staff. Doctors belonging to the trade union, the British Medical Association, have been in a dispute with the government for months over changes to their contract, which many deem unsafe.
The new amendments propose an extension of junior doctors’ standard working hours, which include working on evenings as well as weekends. The government, as part of its manifesto to offer a “seven-day National Health Service,” intends to increase working hours in lieu of additional pay, yet the BMA argues the basic pay rise is offset by the limitation imposed in the antisocial pay.
Mark Porter, the BMA chairman, accuses Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt of throwing “mud at the junior doctors of this country who have been providing weekend and night emergency cover since the NHS started.”
Porter also denied the walkout would cause risks for patients in need of immediate medical care and said while in the absence of junior doctors, senior doctors and consultants would provide emergency care.
If the government persists on its imposition, a standard working day will last from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays — something that is indeed risky for not just doctors but patients as well.
Earlier this month, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson, warned that care of medical patients was under threat because overworked doctors kept missing crucial signs of illnesses in patients. He added widespread understaffing was forcing doctors to stay at work late and during the weekend, making medical care thinner and thinner.
Sleep-deprived, stressed out doctors — not just in the U.K. but anywhere in the world — are bound to make mistakes, causing irreparable harm or even death in some cases.
But a prevailing attitude in hospitals is that sleep-deprivation and overwork comes with being a doctor.
“I don’t know if sleep deprivation is a big deal for me,” said an OBGYN who had been pulling a “Jack Bauer” — British slang for a person who has been taking care of patients for over 24 hours. “Beyond the fact that it’s just not pleasant to be tired.”
Yet, scientific evidence by the Federal Aviation Association points out a critical link between lack of sleep and errors made by pilots — and the same can be said for doctors as well, who are humans just like the people in the aviation industry.
For example, just a few weeks ago, a Connecticut woman filed a lawsuit against Yale-New Haven Hospital for accidentally removing a wrong rib during surgery.
Incidents of malpractice are not uncommon in hospitals and may very well be due to exhausted doctors.