I’m a junior doctor and I love my job, but my colleagues are all leaving. The NHS is suffering, and suffering badly. To ignore the concerns of doctors means to ignore the health of our very nation. No wonder there is a new ballot on industrial action – that will see junior doctors go on strike for 72 hours in March if successful.
I left medical school just over four years ago. Back then the NHS was in peril, but the goodwill, extra unpaid hours and incredible fortitude of its staff seemed to just about be keeping it afloat. My university friends and I were excited to start life as qualified doctors.
We had heard horror stories of course, of the long hours, the draining, exhausting night shifts, the high staff burnout rates and the extraordinary pressure of managing several unwell patients at the same time.
Nonetheless, we were optimistic for the culmination of six gruelling years at medical school: to finally be allowed to hang our stethoscopes around our necks, to wear the “staff” badges rather than the “student” ones, to finally be officially called “doctors”.
Fast forward to today, and the situation is very different. Several of those whom I graduated with have now left the NHS. The hope they felt as students has truly been replaced by dread, stress and burnout.
Not only this: every week on the wards I meet medical students who are bright and compassionate, empathetic and kind. But when I ask them what speciality they wish to pursue once they qualify, they pause and tell me that what they really want to do is leave medicine entirely as soon as they can. “We’ve heard about it all, we’ve seen it with our eyes. We can’t work like this, no one can.”The excitement of becoming a doctor has truly vanished.
The reason is that these medical students see what all healthcare professionals see – the complete and utter capitulation of the NHS.
Patients stuck all night in ambulances outside A&E, extraordinarily long emergency department waiting times, a single doctor doing the job of several, staff having breakdowns during shifts, patients dying needlessly due to lack of beds and space. The list goes on and on.
Is it any surprise that 400 NHS workers quit every week? Is it really a shock that 10 per cent of all NHS posts are lying vacant? To many people it may be, but to those who have seen and experienced the state of our health service, it is no surprise at all.
The problems that have culminated in the “breaking point” situation that we face today have been as a result of years of underfunding and understaffing. The period of 2010 to 2020, for example, saw the lowest investment in the NHS during its history. The total number of NHS hospital beds in England has more than halved in the past 30 years, while the number of patients requiring treatment has markedly increased.
Not only has the system been stretched to the point of destruction, but the staff have been appallingly neglected. Doctors have suffered a 30 per cent real-terms pay cut since 2008, and the situation for other healthcare staff is similar.
A recent image highlighted the fact that three doctors, performing a life-saving operation, get paid just £50 an hour between them. These pay statistics are in the context of many healthcare staff often having to single-handedly work the jobs of several people, such are the shortages that exist today.
The decline of the NHS was not inevitable. It came as a result of deliberate political choices, and these choices now threaten the health of all of us, and our families.
The optimism I possessed when I started work as a junior doctor has certainly been tested over recent years. When I hear about friends and colleagues who are brilliant, talented, kind people, becoming totally broken by their working life, I feel extremely sad. Their leaving the NHS is a loss for us all.
The government needs to act, and act fast, to improve working conditions and pay for healthcare staff, to properly fund the health service and to halt and reverse the selling off of NHS infrastructure and beds to private companies.
Without these steps, the health of our very nation is truly at stake.
Dr Damir Rafi is a junior doctor and spokesperson for the campaign organisation EveryDoctor. He is the author of Emergence: The Journey of a Young British Muslim Living in an Age of Extremism, and blog editor of Rational Religion. He organises youth events and discussions on issues relating to current affairs and religion