Within 10 days of the government’s confirmation of a contentious new contract for junior doctors, the General Medical Council received 3,468 requests for a certificate of current professional status – the document required to work abroad. Given the new terms outlined in this contract and the current stresses attached to the life of a junior doctor, the most surprising aspect of this saga seems to be that the number is not drastically higher.
With hundreds of medical students set to leave Edinburgh within the academic year and start work in the NHS in August 2016, it seems many of these students are entering a long-established institution that is spiralling out of control. Indeed, on Saturday afternoon, the British Medical Association (BMA), the only trade union for doctors in the UK, has announced that they will be holding a ballot to determine whether to strike.
Contrary to popular opinion, medical students entering the NHS earn £5,000 less than the average graduate job salary, and face a mountain of costs unique to their illustrious profession. With a starting salary of £23,000, junior doctors must take a minimum of three exams, costing a total of £1,438 (assuming they pass on their first time). On top of this, courses designed to help doctors practice tricky procedures and pass their exams range from a starting price of £300, and rise to the dizzy height of £1,400. Only an inadequate study budget of roughly £750 is in place to aid junior doctors.
Under the Conservative government’s new contracts for junior doctors, this exploitation is set to worsen. The basic salary of a junior doctor is set to rise, yet, with a new definition of ‘anti-social’ working hours – a distinction that significantly affects over-time pay rates – is set to lead to a 30 per cent reduction of wages across the entire NHS.
However, the greatest factor pushing doctors towards a strike is that, under a Conservative government, they are undervalued, repeatedly scapegoated and, in many ways, insulted. Jeremy Hunt’s claim that doctors in the NHS had lost their ‘sense of vocation’ pierced deeper into the heart of every medical practitioner far greater than any scalpel could, leading to a 150,000 signature-strong petition calling for the removal of Hunt from office. The Secretary of State for Health seemed to have forgotten, or simply ignored, that a vocation for the jobs is, in many cases, the only thing driving many of these professionals.
After all, it is otherwise difficult to explain why so many junior doctors work well over their allotted hours for no additional wage; why so many doctors pay out of their own pocket to enhance their own skills as a doctor; why so many doctors repeatedly accept low wages, despite being amongst the most educated and well-trained individuals in Europe.
As with every public sector profession, public opinion is key. The decision to strike, should the body of doctors approve it, is one that could unfairly turn many people against the plight of these young professionals. Doctors in Britain are unfairly perceived as anomalies.
An oath is a personal commitment, and the Hippocratic Oath is no exception. The emotional dimension of medicine is often overlooked. It is generally assumed that as doctors have undertaken the Hippocratic Oath, they should always be willing to work under any conditions. Public empathy can be less forthcoming when it is assumed that doctors are already working within a privileged capacity. And so, with talk of strike action consuming our newsfeeds many will wrongfully judge these young-professionals for simply refusing to accept the government’s maltreatment.
Some people have begun questioning the Conservative government’s motives, arguing that these grievances are part of a wider plan to unsettle and weaken the NHS, thus pushing the institution closer to privatisation.
So what can a medical graduate expect to find upon leaving the University of Edinburgh? The answer is bleak. Long working hours and wages that continue to steadily fall are all underpinned by the actions of an ignorant government, one that is content with undervaluing some of the best-trained, young professionals in the world. With this in mind, it seems the number of junior doctors planning a career abroad is understandably set to skyrocket.