Junior doctors like me aren't just striking over pay – it's for your safety too

The day starts at 8am sharp, as I find myself walking through a corridor with a seemingly endless row of patients.

There’s a cacophony of dismay and disappointment when – all too frequently – I will be stopped in my tracks by a desperate person asking for help or their angry family member seeking answers.

Who can blame them? I would be the same in their shoes if it were my loved one.

Once I reach my ward, the pandemonium and chaos continues. Every sense is hyper-stimulated – the constant noise of beeps and buzzes, colleagues rushing to keep things afloat, all while dealing with information overload and not being able to hear myself think.

This is how my day starts and ends, day in and day out.

Working in a diverse East London borough as a junior doctor is exciting, but it comes with challenges – and the cracks are on full show, especially among my cohort of colleagues. That’s why I, and many of my junior doctor colleagues, are striking this week.

Throughout this winter, this way of working became the usual. Despite the physical and mental exhaustion, I didn’t even question it.

That is, until a colleague of mine had been broken to the point of tears and confessed that she, and everyone around her, were existing in a hypnotic, zombie-like state. She pointed out that we’re utterly neglecting our physical needs while being martyrs to a healthcare system ripping at the seams.

It’s an NHS being bound together by what seems to be the good will of its workforce. From then on, in daily discussions I was having with other junior doctors, the phrase of the ‘zombie cohort’ became increasingly common.

This describes my feelings perfectly.

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Finishing on time is rare, short breaks are a luxury and on particularly bad days, there isn’t even any time to get a sip of water all day. This is the reality observed by all my colleagues.

Yet, it wasn’t always doom and gloom.

As a medical student, I volunteered in a local GP surgery on the verge of collapse from April 2020. This was my first exposure to what working within a crumbling healthcare system was like, which was at the start of Covid-19, but my spirit wasn’t dampened.

In fact, I was inspired by all the brave healthcare professionals and auxiliary staff around me. The courageous spirit continued while on my clinical attachment in the East Midlands area as the pandemic ensued.

Observing first-hand the dedication of all those healthcare professionals who battled the pandemic, while Downing Street partied and made a mockery of their own rules. In hindsight, I feel a deep sense of sympathy for all health workers whose sacrifice was allegedly ridiculed by our rulemakers.

Then, in August last year, I began my career as a newly-qualified doctor.

My first few days of hospital life were bewildering, exciting and educational all at the same time. Medicine isn’t easy or stable – it’s a rollercoaster.

Even prior to the chaos of this winter, the cracks in the healthcare system were evident. It’s no wonder – with unsatisfactory investment in the NHS and no discernible strategy planning over the past 13 years – the Tory Government seems to me to be running a minimum provision service that is failing many of us.

But when the NHS descended into this winter, the sheer bleakness of being on the frontline began to unravel in an unforgiving manner. It felt like nothing we’d been through before – not even Covid-19.

The chaos and turmoil I experience every day is persistent. But for my patients, it’s perilous.

We see late diagnoses of cancer and various other pathologies with alarming frequency. One unforgettable moment was a young woman who had given birth to her second child.

Instead of celebrating with her loved ones, she was in a busy hospital 10 days later when we gave her the news that she had a massive brain tumour. Her prognosis was poor.

These moments take an extraordinary emotional burden on your doctors: I’ve thought of this woman every single day since. These patients require more complex intervention, which is hard to come by within a resource-stricken NHS.

I’m left feeling that I have miserably failed my mission on improving the lives of others. But we’re failed by those in power and we have to clean up their mess.

The zombie cohort is not confined to a particular hospital or specialty, this is a universal issue inflicting junior doctors up and down the country.

The rate of burnout among junior doctors is profound, I find it deplorable that 92% of trusts told NHS providers they had concerns of staff burnout and stress following the pandemic. Compared to the general population, doctors are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Saddest of all, the rate of suicide among doctors is up to four times higher than the general population. In medicine, we all know at least someone personally, who has died by suicide – an unbelievable tragedy. The paradox is, how can we help others when we’re prevented by poor working conditions from helping ourselves?

Can anyone blame my colleagues who want to escape from the NHS frontline and practice medicine abroad? Or hang up their stethoscope for good? In fact, the most common questions posed by my colleagues are alternative careers to medicine.

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With a shortage of 12,000 hospital doctors (according to Nuffield Trust research) and a previously reported doctor-to-patient ratio of a measly 2.8 doctors per 1,000 people (as of December 2019), the impending exodus of doctors is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed for the sake of public health.

Yet, there are glimmers of hope.

Firstly, junior doctors are striking to restore our pay, which has been cut by 26% since 2008. Raising this rate should address the exodus of doctors to other countries with superior pay and working conditions – a phenomenon known as ‘Drexit’ (doctor exit).

Both pay restoration and increasing staff retention should create the working conditions that we – and ultimately our patients – deserve.

Joining thousands of junior doctors striking across the UK has been invigorating. It’s been the injection of new life we all need: a resounding chorus of ‘enough is enough’ to the Government.

We’re all fighting the good fight – to preserve the NHS for generations to come, pay restoration and good working conditions. The highest importance to us is patient safety.

The show of solidarity across the country has been excellent. Now, it’s time for the Government to act.

In truth, the NHS is on a knife edge and this self-described ‘zombie cohort’ of junior doctors could really do with an injection of new life. I reinforce the point that professional wellbeing is inextricably linked to public health: the two are inseparable.

We cannot have good healthcare without a well-staffed, replenished NHS.

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