Yesterday, junior doctors across the UK took the unprecedented step of going on strike in protest to new contracts that the British Medical Association argue risks safeguards put in place to limit excessive hours.
I am not from a medical background so I do not know the exhaustion of working a 24 hour shift. I do not know the highs of being able save a life, nor do I know the devastating lows of being unable to save one. But, as a primary school teacher working in state education, I do understand the joy of being able to help others. I am not going to rose tint the profession – there are times when it is tempting to give up – but there are also times , for example when a child who has being struggling to understand finally grasps a concept or masters a skill, that make the stress and the hard work worthwhile. I imagine the same is true in healthcare. Despite the long hours, high pressure, and anxiety there must surely be times when all the study, research, heartache, and seemingly endless hours pay off.
Yet, I and the vast majority of teachers I have met, also know what it is like to be part of profession that is so often left demoralised and undervalued – not by everyone I hasten to add. Children, parents, and patients (respectively) are often the most appreciative of what we do. However, both medical and education professions have suffered as successive governments have repeatedly moved goalposts or imposed artificial targets, primarily to suit their own political ends. I have also witnessed, among friends and colleagues, the hugely damaging effects of stress and the waste of talent resulting from ‘burn-out’ caused by over-work.
Of course it is important to continually strive for improvement (obviously – why wouldn’t you?) but employing an approach ‘discipline and fear’ which results in telling highly-trained professionals, be they doctors or teachers, that they are ‘not good enough’ is a far from effective approach.
We may not be able to speak for doctors, but we can speak up for them.
It would be very easy at this stage for this article to become a tirade against the Conservative Party (and Messrs Hunt, Gove and Morgan in particular), but the truth is that until health and education are separated from party politics, this cycle of decision making based on political fashion and colour will continue.
Our health service, like our education system, has room for improvement – it would be a denial to say otherwise – yet they are also remarkable achievements and should be celebrated as such. It is important that they are held to account, but this should be done by an independent body of professionals with relevant experience. Only when governments stop treating health and education as political footballs will we be able to make effective long-term decisions based, not on ideology, but on sound evidence and best practice in order to restore confidence and public faith in our professions.
When 98% of junior doctors (and do not make the assumption that this means they are unskilled or mere trainees – the term applies equally to doctors who have recently qualified from medical school to specialists with potentially decades of experience) vote in favour of strike action they not only should, but must, be listened to. It is evident that the National Health Service is sick. I wish I had a solution. However, if someone is sick who is better placed than a doctor to suggest a cure?
Cllr. Chris Whitwood was Yorkshire First's 2015 parliamentary candidate for York Central.