After months of debate, junior doctors have voted to take industrial action. The BMA secured a landslide mandate, with more than 98% of junior doctors voting to go ahead and withdraw their labour.
GPs at every level have been vociferous in their support for junior doctors. Grassroots organisations (such as Tiko’s GP Group and GP Survival), the RCGP and GP leaders have all been lobbying against the health secretary’s proposals as strongly as they could.
Although the junior doctor contract changes won’t affect us directly, most GPs are not convinced by the health secretary’s reassurances that GP registrars will not be affected. There is understandable suspicion about the replacement of out-of-hours pay enhancements with shadowy ‘pay premia’.
Looking at the bigger picture, GPs feel strongly that the changes are unethical and unfair. We have all been junior doctors, and feel outraged that these highly qualified, committed professionals, who earn £22k a year, work 60-90 hours a week, pay thousands of pounds to get extra qualifications and leave no stone unturned in the quality of care they provide, are being stretched beyond breaking point.
Most importantly, we worry about our patients who may be treated by exhausted doctors, or have to endure even longer waiting times as we see the exodus of doctors leaving the UK for ‘non toxic environments’, to quote Royal College of Emergency Medicine president Dr Cliff Mann.
So what can we do to help them? I have been working with junior doctors to support their campaign both in the national media and on social media, and have been talking to them at length in my role as an A&E doctor. There are several ways in which we can help them, directly or indirectly:
1 Join the Junior Doctor Contract Forum Facebook group.1 This is 53,000 strong and is the best place to keep up to date with key events and the issues at the heart of the crisis.
2 Join them in protests and at local ‘meet the doctors’ events. We may not be junior doctors ourselves, but helping boost numbers and showing solidarity is extremely important. More importantly, the public often finds it convincing to hear the arguments from non-junior doctors, who don’t have any personal pecuniary interest in the contracts. The best place to get details of when and where these events are happening is the Junior Doctors Contract Forum on Facebook.
3 Talk to your patients. Often patients who know us well and have established good rapport with us will ask us for our views on what is happening. Be honest and explain that the junior doctors’ contract will remove the safeguards that ensure doctors don’t work dangerously long hours. A service with exhausted doctors, like an aircraft with an exhausted pilot, puts people at risk. The health secretary can call the strike off within minutes, if he takes up the BMA’s offer to start independently arbitrated discussions through Acas (which most patients will be aware of). But he has specifically decided against this.
4 Reassure people you meet that emergency services will be covered during the strike. There is currently huge anxiety among patients, but you can counter some of the spin. GP surgeries will continue to work as normal, although there may be picket lines and GP registrars may be absent. But by and large, GP practices will be unaffected.
5 Support your registrars if they wish to strike. Legally, GP registrars are entitled to strike even if they are not members of the BMA, and should not have to ‘make up’ missed sessions.
6 Tell everyone about the NHS anthem – this is devised by junior doctors to raise awareness and was released last month.2
7 Wear a badge. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase one.
8 Get on twitter. This is a good way to communicate directly with politicians, policymakers and journalists without any barriers. Politicians will often feel compelled to reply to a question if they receive vast numbers of tweets, and journalists often quote tweets on TV and radio programmes. It is one of the easiest and most effective ways to influence the wider debate.
Despite all of this, it is possible that the strike will be called off, Jeremy Hunt may be persuaded to take up the latest offer from the BMA to hold discussions through Acas, despite his initial rejection of the proposal. Even if such talks take place, it is imperative that we continue to support junior doctors, as this issue certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.
Dr Hamed Khan is a GP in Surrey, an A&E doctor and a clinical lecturer at St George’s, University of London