Junior Doctors and Social Media: Fighting for the NHS

10/08/2016 09:13 | Updated 10 August 2016


What happens when medics and social media collide? You get one of the biggest revolutions in one of the world's most respected healthcare systems.

The UK National Health Service is a spectacular, albeit complicated, organization that has been rated as one of the best healthcare systems in the world. With around 1.6million staff, it is the fifth biggest global employer. It offers free help to anyone who needs it, whenever they need it, regardless of financial standing. To many, it is a national treasure.

It also does an immense amount of research that is then utilized for the benefit of millions globally. It trains huge numbers of staff who use their highly sought after skills to carry on the vital work of the organization locally, as well as share them with the rest of the world. It is by no means perfect - no system on this scale could be - but it does an impressive job in the face of overwhelming pressures.

Over the years, the NHS has undergone a number of changes to try to cope with the growing pressures on it. Inevitably, many of these have been politically-driven, since this is an organization for the people, but not all of these have resulted in change for the better. Part of those changes has been to look at staffing, particularly the contracts of junior doctors, to ensure that the system was fit-for-purpose and fit for the future.

So the UK government and the national doctors' union, the British Medical Association, entered a period of tumultuous negotiations. Several years later, despite no acceptable conclusion to the talks, the UK government decided it was going to impose a contract unilaterally on every junior doctor across the country. This was despite serious concerns at all levels about the hugely detrimental impact it would have on patient and staff safety, as well as the quality of care provided.

However, the government decided that it would press on with its plans, even if it meant locking horns with NHS staff, and it would use every weapon in its armoury to do so. The government media machine went into overdrive. Junior doctors were portrayed as lazy, over-privileged and over-paid individuals desperately resistant to change. The truth was actually far from that, but the public would never know.

Then something happened. Doctors, usually relatively placid individuals who 'just get on with it', decided to take matters into their own hands. They fought back using a tool they never had before: social media.

A massive tidal wave of unadulterated information poured into the public domain, all directly from people on the ground. Hearts and minds started to change. Through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, doctors were able to co-ordinate and carry out one of the biggest protest marches in the history of the NHS - something that would never have been possible in the past. Trending hashtags like #ImInWorkJeremy, #NotSafeNotFair and #JuniorDoctorContracts directed the public towards a completely different viewpoint - one from the very heart of the NHS itself.

Doctors knew how important it was to give the public a chance to see the real picture, away from all the government spin. However, what they didn't expect was the outpouring of love for the NHS that happened as a result. This overwhelming support, harnessed by hashtags like #LoveYourNHS, resulted in a renewed celebration of what the NHS stood for. It led to an NHS choir taking the Christmas No. 1 slot (ahead of Justin Bieber) and the birth of movements like @NHSMillion and @Justice4Health_. A real power shift happened. Social media meant that the people, whom the NHS stood for, were back in the driving seat.

The journey is not done though. Despite several unprecedented doctors' strikes, unheard of in NHS history, and further negotiations, the situation is still far from sorted. The hope is that there will be some form of resolution in the near future - the NHS needs it for the sake of the people it looks after and those it employs.

No matter what the outcome, the social media-fuelled pro-NHS momentum that has been generated will continue for a long time to come. It will remind us that the NHS will always be an organization by the people for the people, in spite of all the difficulties it faces. And I, like so many others, will always be proud to be part of it.

Dr. Ranj Singh is a NHS Junior Doctor based in London. He has been a doctor for 13 years and now specializes in the emergency care of children and young people. He is also a TV presenter, author and columnist

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