THE HERALD'S OPINION: Long history of harsh working conditions for young doctors

UNFORTUNATELY, there is nothing new about young doctors, fresh out of university, complaining about workplace bullying and long working hours, as revealed by surveys and discussions with junior medical officers employed in the public system by Hunter New England Health.

The Newcastle Herald has reported similar concerns for 20 years or more.

In the same light, there is nothing surprising in the response from management, which is to say that it understands there are problems, and that things are likely to improve in the near future.

Similar sentiments have been expressed in earlier outbreaks of discontent.

But whatever improvements have been made in the past 20 years or so, John Hunter Hospital’s director of medical services, Dr Michael Hensley, still acknowledges what he calls a “generational tradition” of education by humiliation.

While rightly saying there is no place for bullying and harassment in the hospital system, Dr Hensley also says that some people go into medicine without fully realising what it involves, as if this somehow excuses the aggressive behaviour reported by junior doctors: behaviour Dr Hensley appears to accept as real.

Traditionally, the justification for meting out harsh treatment to junior doctors was to “stress test” them to ensure that they could handle the pressures they were likely to encounter during a career that by definition would result in them having to make life-and-death decisions.

Similar reasons were given for making junior doctors work shifts that could last for three or four days, with the doctor expected to grab a few minutes of sleep here and there but to remain on the job for days on end.

While the complaints this time around relate mainly to bullying behaviour – described by young doctors’ representative Dr Tessa Kennedy as “hazing” – long hours are still an issue, although the state government said in November that it would limit shifts to 14 hours, initially, and then to 12. 

One of the biggest breakthroughs in modern healthcare has been the focus on “evidence-based” policy, flowing from the work of Scottish doctor Archie Cochrane. It could be in everyone’s interest – doctors and patients alike – to find if there is any evidence to support driving young doctors so hard. It is hard to imagine there would be, in which case these practices should end.

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