All eyes will be on junior doctors this week as they begin their first day of strike action against a new contract proposed by the government. I will be paying particular attention, as in around two years I will be qualifying as a junior doctor myself. Unable to strike, my fellow medical students and I will be watching anxiously from inside the hospital as the junior doctors fight not only for their future, but for ours as well.
If the proposed contract goes ahead, it will be the contract medical students will sign when we graduate and begin our jobs in hospitals across the country. It is fair to say that for medical students, optimism about the future is faltering. We look forward to lower pay, longer hours, and less safeguards to prevent doctors from being overworked. Discussions about the future with my friends used to be about choosing specialties, but now the conversations drift to the possibilities of working abroad or even leaving the profession entirely. It seems that we are not alone - a recent survey of prospective medical students found that 37 per cent were no longer interested in medicine as a result of the belligerent handling of the contract disputes by health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Jeremy Hunt may hold the old-fashioned belief that all doctors are money grubbing, yet my fellow medical students did not enter medicine to become wealthy. There are other professions in which the training is faster, and the rewards larger. My peers and I chose medicine largely for compassionate reasons - not to get rich, as Jeremy Hunt might like to think.
The fact is that training to become a doctor is a financial challenge. With the rise in student fees, and the minimum five years it takes to finish medical school, the average debt of medical students is predicted to be around £82,000 by the time they graduate. This is before the costs of postgraduate training, with some exams costing over £1000. With many junior doctors beginning to have families around this age, it is not uncommon to hear of junior doctors struggling to make ends meet around housing, childcare, and training costs. The proposed pay cut is a kick in the teeth for medical students already worried about their financial future.
Yet despite all the talk of pay cuts, the real fear amongst medical students is that we will be signing a contract that will affect our ability to care for patients in a safe manner. We as medical students are taught that treating patients requires careful focus, and we are warned by stories of tired doctors making simple errors with drastic consequences. I have heard from junior doctors of their marathon 80-hour weeks, the struggle to cannulate a patient after a 20-hour shift, and nodding off at the wheel driving home. The new contract proposes to remove safeguards that prevent the overworking of junior doctors, and I frankly find this terrifying.
I spent yesterday on the hospital wards, a regular teaching experience for a medical student. Often, the best way to learn medicine is to experience the action first-hand. I spoke to many patients, and as is often the case, I found myself taken aback by their enthusiasm to help me learn. After speaking to an elderly patient, I pushed back the curtain to leave when she stopped me. "Before you go, I'd just like to wish you the best of luck with your studies," she said smiling. "I think you've chosen a really honourable profession, helping people like me." Patients, like this elderly woman, remind me why I chose to study medicine in the first place. Despite the difficulties, it's extremely rewarding to feel like you've made a difference in someone's day, even if it is small. And when a patient thanks me or wishes me luck for the future, as they often do, it can turn a difficult day into a good one.
In the recent months it has been easy to forget that the British public are tremendously proud of the NHS. In a world increasingly filled with inequality, the NHS represents a nation looking after it's own people in a non-discriminatory way. The junior doctor strike is not just about the proposed contract, but is also is part of a larger message to a government that seems so keen on dismantling one of the best parts of modern day Britain. As a medical student, I am not able to join the strike, but I will stand with the junior doctors - my future colleagues - and support them in their fight for the patients they care for everyday.