The UK’s Unhealthy Health Minister

Will McCartney

Our country’s health minister is distancing himself from his health workers, and this is a backwards, unhealthy step in the world of medicine.

In case you didn’t know, the future for doctors is changing. As of next year, it is proposed that junior doctors are to sign an updated working contract, entailing an alteration to hours worked and permutations to pay.

Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health in our Conservative government, has put forward this new doctrine with the hope of improving the range of services available to people seven days a week. As an ideal, this is an attractive one, but alongside many of the Utopian-headed policy-makers in the Tory government, Mr. Hunt is forgetting that our undergraduate doctors are not machines.

The contract goes as follows: our politicians think that current contracts are “outdated”, and hence, they want to cut the number of working hours considered as “unsociable”. As it stands, our doctors receive higher pay when working outside the hours of 7am-7pm, because they are on duty at times that are considered to be uncommon working hours, or hours that are deemed harder to work due to their impractical time. Hence, and evidently fairly, doctors are paid more for these shifts. However, Jeremy Hunt’s freshly proposed contract changes the range of “unsociable” hours to 7am-10pm. This would mean that that the number of working hours considered to be “normal” increases by 50%.

Yes, our medicine students and young practitioners are some of the most talented and skilful people in the country. Being conditioned through at least 5 years of testing university courses and practical work, on the back of attaining the highest school results in the country, one can be strongly assured of the fact that these individuals are to be rightfully trusted in handling your health problems. But, just like Shakespeare was prone to writing the odd shit verse the day after a big night out, our junior doctors are susceptible to human error. And, this susceptibility will be amplified if our doctors are having to work later hours without a significant monetary incentive. 

One protesting junior doctor said to Sky News in the rally in London, “Tired doctors make mistakes.”  This highlights a key issue that Hunt has seemed to have overlooked: these are the contracts of people who have our lives in their hands. In the same way that we wouldn’t want an airline pilot to be tired and not bound to a safe contract, it is fair to say that we would not be attracted to the idea of doctors working in a similar vein. If a pilot makes a mistake, our lives are at risk. This is the same for our junior doctors.

I also spoke to UCL medical student Meg, who said “the new contract goes against everything we as medical students believe in. By removing safeguards (financial incentives to those who organise rotas) that ensure that juniors won’t be overworked and forced to work long and exhausting hours, Jeremy Hunt is directly risking patient safety, which is the sole focus for any doctor.” It is clear that the distaste has been realised and felt by students who have seen the potential jeopardising of their careers. Meg concludes: “This contract isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t safe. From my point of view, this is another step down the pathway of privatisation, and we all need to take notice and save our NHS.”

Although our healthcare is a personal, friendly institution, one cannot ignore the realm of finance. It is apparent human nature that our performance is driven by incentive and motivation, and if our doctors are being paid the same amount of money for working at 10pm on a Saturday as they are at 3pm on a Tuesday, we can see how there would not only be discontent, but a reduction in incentive to perform. The British Medical Association (BMA) has suggested that earnings could fall by 15% for those who work weekends, late night hours, anaesthetists and those in emergency care. These areas are crucial, imperative fields of medicine that deal with the serious end of health problems. If these workers are earning less money and still working the same “unsociable” hours, serious errors could creep in. And the doctors will be blamed for this. Not the man behind the policy.

Another pressing issue is that Jeremy Hunt has told the media that he feels these protesting doctors are “misled”, and that he “would protest too if he was misled.” He has not, as of yet, been open to significant negotiations regarding the contract, which reflects stubborn, theoretical politics. Sickness is at record heights in our country, and one would assume that our minister would act with more sensitivity and delicacy; and as a result of this negligence, there becomes a distance between the man in charge of our healthcare and the people he represents.

The aforementioned was made internationally clear when” #IminworkJeremy” trended on Twitter – consultants and doctors were posting photos of themselves in work on weekends and at unsociable hours, in response to Hunt’s claim that doctors are ‘overpaid’ and that there was a ‘Monday to Friday culture’ in certain areas of our NHS. Of course it is fair to say that we should maximise the availability of our most skilled clinicians and emergency workers, but when the hours changing and pay stagnancy begins to compromise their skill, it’s arguably worth another look at.

So I believe that the pending Conservative contract for our young doctors is dangerous. If our health minister is distancing himself from the body he represents, then his empathy towards the healthcare system will undoubtedly become foggy. We need a contract that is constructed by a figure with a clear understanding of the humanitarian side to doctors – with knowledge of how one can make mistakes if they are tired or underpaid or lacking incentive. It seems Hunt has forgotten that these potential mistakes carry so much more gravitas than the past mistakes made by his government in the world of economics.

You don’t have to be a well-educated, morally immaculate politician to understand that patient safety should be considered ahead of politics. But it helps. We need a different contract; maybe a different minister. Otherwise this could be one of the biggest political cancers of them all.

Will McCartney

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