Columns, Opinion

RENNER: U.K. doctors crusade against unfair contracts

Trouble has been brewing with the United Kingdom’s health care system in the past year, and the solutions are only now gaining traction.

The National Health Service is the United Kingdom’s source of free health care for every single resident, and it has been extremely successful since its institutionalization in 1948. In 2014, The Commonwealth Fund even ranked it as the “most impressive [healthcare system] overall,” beating out 10 other countries, including the United States. However, in the same year, according to The Guardian, the Care Quality Commission “rated 79 [percent] of the 82 hospitals inspected [in the United Kingdom] as ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ for safety in at least one of eight core types of care assessed.”

A majority of these issues can be traced back to one critical problem: a sovereign state-wide shortage of upcoming, specialized doctors. The Telegraph reported a study done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showing that “Britain [had] fewer doctors per head of population than almost every other European country,” and that these shortages “were putting lives at risk, and leaving services under ‘incredible pressure.’”

More than a year after these findings were reported, not much has improved. The solution to these issues and the very future of the United Kingdom’s healthcare system is largely in the hands of its youngest providers, who are currently striking.

In September 2015, the NHS imposed a new contract for this sector of 53,000 developing health care professionals that dramatically worsens their working conditions. According to The Guardian, “The new contract [extended] the normal working week in which doctors can be told to work their 48 hours from 7am-7pm Monday to Friday to 7am-10pm Monday to Saturday.”

On top of this change, the doctors also no longer receive overtime wages for their work on evenings and Saturdays, which The Guardian reported could result in dramatic decreases in their pay. People fear this will cause a mass exodus of young medics and damage the future of the NHS for generations to come.

The response to this new contract has been frightening. Figures showed that in just three days after the new terms were announced, “1,644 young doctors had already [begun] the process of applying for the certification needed” to practice medicine in other countries such as Australia, according to The Guardian.

The trainee doctors group of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which provides a “coherent, informed, balanced view on generic issues relevant to [college-registered] trainees” and works to protect all 240,000 members of the United Kingdom’s medical field, wrote a letter that outlines its “significant concerns” and “implications for patient safety and maintenance of a sustainable medical workforce” to Jeremy Hunt, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for health. Hunt is responsible for the passage of this contract. The trainee doctors’ letter, along with growing unrest in the medical community, has put pressure on him to reconsider his decision.

Most notable, however, aside from all of the outlying politics, is the young doctors’ response to the issue. These people are quite literally the future of medicine in the United Kingdom, and the way they act directly affects the landscape of modern medicine. This past week, some junior doctors have been protesting, holding up signs that read, “Tired doctors make mistakes” and, “Don’t spread us any thinner,” The Guardian reported. As a result, many have failed to provide their patients with care.

The United Kingdom’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, warned of all the suffering that patients would go through as a result of doctors striking, according to The Guardian. Although protesting is a legitimate channel for change, it’s counterproductive to argue for positive change in patient care while refusing to provide the bare minimum.

A shining beacon of hope in this ongoing, aching battle has recently come in the form of a small group of junior doctors who have managed to raise 25,000 pounds to “pay for solicitors to investigate judicial review proceedings on the detrimental effect the new contract could have on patients” and fight for their cause in a protective way, BuzzFeed reported.

This fundraising campaign was launched at midnight Saturday on the United Kingdom’s only legal fundraising page, CrowdJustice, and raised that sum of money in just three days. Now the page projects a goal of 125,000 pounds, or just over $176,000. According to BuzzFeed News, Nadia Masood, another junior doctor leading Just Health, “confirmed the group would be meeting with lawyers to begin investigations this week.”

These doctors’ efforts provide a composed, intelligent counterstrike that has the potential to perpetrate real change in their workforce. In a field that constitutes the best and the brightest and that has dealt with constant inflictions on patient care, these young members serve as role models not only on this small-scale issue, but also for young professionals worldwide.

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