Brexit, junior doctor contracts and the Tory-DUP deal – a perfect storm for junior doctor morale

With the latest political war over, the dust will now begin to settle, talk will turn back to celebrities and frivolity, and the NHS will continue on its current trajectory with Hunt at the helm. But what does the new government mean for the NHS – and in particular the current state of morale for junior doctors?

The morale of NHS doctors has been a concern for many years, and results from the latest NHS staff survey show that 39% of NHS staff admitted to experiencing work-related stress that made them feel unwell in the last 12 months (NHS Staff Survey, 2016).

Why are junior doctors suffering from low morale?

Let’s start with Brexit. In 2016, 10% of doctors were from elsewhere in the EU according to the English Health Service’s Electronic Staff Record. If Brexit negotiations turn sour, and EU citizens can’t be guaranteed their rights within the UK – or in fact just don’t feel welcome anymore – we would face an NHS staffing crisis amongst doctors. The BMA polled over 1,000 doctors from the EU working in the NHS after the Brexit vote, and found that 42% are thinking of leaving, and a further 23% were unsure (BMA, 2017).

And then there is the 1% pay cap that was introduced by the Conservative government, which means that with inflation, staff are actually getting paid less year-on-year. This is simply an insult to the people we are entrusting to save our lives, and was exacerbated by Theresa May’s unsympathetic comments during the election campaign that there is “no magic money tree.” Real term pay cuts for doctors and nurses are having a direct effect on recruitment and retention across the NHS.

Next is the workforce crisis that is hidden from public view. Already thinly stretched, junior doctors are reporting gaps in rotas and regularly working longer than their allocated hours to protect patient safety and complete essential clinical work. These excessive and often unrealistic workloads, coupled with falling pay, are pushing doctors to leave medicine. The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) even issued a warning at the end of last year that patient safety was seriously compromised by gaps in junior doctor rotas. For example, in paediatrics, the most recent workforce report shows hospitals are currently having to cope with an average junior doctor vacancy rate of 14% and 240 empty consultant posts (Politics, 2017).

And finally, the lack of recognition. Politicians talk about increased spending and promises about recruitment to the NHS, but what we must remember is that these pledges affect real people; people who are doing their best to keep us safe. Junior doctors are at the start of their careers, but face low morale and the risk of burnout from year one, so it’s no wonder they are leaving to work in sunnier climates with better working conditions (BMA, 2016).

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What can we do about low morale?

We need to start focusing on the health and wellbeing, both mental and physical, of those who look after ours. Nearly all political parties promised an increase in NHS funding. More resources and increased staffing would mean that junior doctors will feel less stretched, causing less work-related stress and ultimately improving morale – but with an ever-increasing population, is the UK government willing to put up taxes to pay for it? Is the NHS as efficient as it can be, and if not, what streamlining and collaboration can be introduced to improve services and reduce the workload on junior doctors?

The NHS under the Conservative-DUP deal

During their 2017 election campaign, the Conservatives pledged to support GPs in delivering “innovative services that better meet patients’ needs, including phone and online consultations and the use of technology to triage people better and support integrated working.” However, they also want all newly qualified doctors to be forced to work for the NHS for at least four years – a form of indentured labour which is highly unlikely to make doctors feel valued and may exacerbate the antipathy.

Could the Conservatives’ health policies be the reason May failed to gain a majority? And will the DUP block or support the Conservatives in their healthcare plans? In 2016, the DUP released a document that states they believe that the NHS needs to evolve to fit 21st century patients and societal problems, an NHS that is “more efficient, more productive and embraces innovation. One that realises the full potential of our integrated health and social care systems” (DUP, 2016). This could mean that a Tory-DUP deal will attempt to streamline NHS pathways and improve efficiency between primary and secondary care. But is this even possible without a significant increase in funding and resolving the lack of morale that is currently rife amongst overworked junior doctors?

The literature and first-hand anecdotes are out there, and it’s a well-trodden mantra – the NHS is underfunded. Without increased funding, there simply will not be enough staff, and junior doctors will continue to feel overworked and undervalued. And without junior doctors staying to progress within the NHS, there may not be a free NHS forever. Aneurin Bevan – often credited as creating the NHS – said in parliament on February 8th 1948, “take pride…we are still able to do the most civilised thing in the world, put the welfare for the sick in front of every other consideration,” – but perhaps we no longer are.

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