What is a junior doctor?

At the moment, our counterparts in the UK are under attack from the government regarding their contracts. In case you have missed it, the government is forcing a new contract on ‘junior doctors’ which will lead to:

  • Reduction in pay of around 30%, in part due to normal working hours including evenings and weekends
  • Financial penalties if time is taken off for say, having children or performing research
  • Loss of protection from unsafe working hours

Although half a world away, the battle hits very close to home for all doctors. The health minister, Jeremy Hunt, has been bending statistics and scaring the public to make them think junior doctors are lazy and money hungry. It would appear that it is the other way around, as while the NHS is figuratively starving to death, the MP’s have still received a 10% pay rise.

Australia has a better but still very imperfect system. You would be hard pushed to find a doctor in Australia who hasn’t had a problem with pay or working conditions. We have been unpaid, refused overtime pay or rostered for unsafe hours. However, at the moment, we’re not in the terrible predicament the NHS docs are. Half of the problem, I feel, comes from calling it a ‘junior doctor’ problem. Referring to any doctor as ‘junior’ is a misnomer and belies the countless financial, personal, professional and educational contributions made not only by the doctors, but their families too.

A junior doctor refers to anyone who is a fully qualified doctor but is still in the process of attaining a qualification in a specialty. It covers wide ages ranges from doctors in their mid 20’s to well, the sky’s the limit. It covers doctors one year from medical school or doctors ten or twenty years from medical school. It covers doctors who have attained their specialist qualification and are fully registered with medical boards, specialty colleges or Medicare as specialists but haven’t got a permanent consultant job yet, either because we have a bottleneck for positions or because they are continuing to gain experience in super sub-specialised areas.

If you come to hospital with a heart attack in the middle of a night, the first person you might see is a ‘junior doctor’. If your heart stops beating, it will be ‘junior doctors’ who will start it again. It may be a ‘junior doctor’ who takes you to the cardiac catheter lab and starts performing the lifesaving procedure to restore blood flow to your heart, while the consultant makes her way to the hospital. They are helped by another ‘junior doctor’ who gives an anaesthetic and keeps your body in optimal condition. It is the ‘junior doctor’ in intensive care who will be monitoring your heart rate and blood pressure, talking to your family and reassuring them and informing them.

It takes at least ten years to train as a specialist but during that time, a ‘junior doctor’ is no less valuable to society, to patients and hospitals. They are still accumulating expert knowledge and spend many, many unpaid, unrecognized and unforgiving hours honing their craft, performing teaching or administration all to one basic end. We all got into this because primarily, we like helping people. We love technical and intellectual challenges too, but we really just want to take a disease and kick its butt.

I think the term ‘junior doctor’ is a serious understatement of how important ‘junior doctors’ are. I would prefer something like pre-specialist. Or specialist in training. Or down right legends. Because that is what junior doctors are. They deserve respect and protection like any other occupation or person in society. They deserve to be able to pay their mortgages and their training fees. We seem to have lost our way as a society with where our respect goes. Put out a sex tape and become ‘Instafamous’? Money and fans and respect are yours. Study for over ten years, work like a dog and sacrifice? The bureaucrats will ensure that your are undervalued and underpaid.

Superstar doctors of the NHS – we are with you 100% of the way. Good luck!

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