i Editor's Letter: Black Wednesday


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The Independent Online


I shall cycle especially carefully this morning, avoid standing on chairs to reach anything and behave politely towards anyone looking agitated. Today is Black Wednesday, that first Wednesday in August which marks the arrival of 6,000 newly qualified doctors on the wards and the start of what the NHS’s Bruce Keogh calls its “killing season”. Death rates rise by 6 per cent as the stabilisers come off and a new flock of medical grads gets to work on patients.

These deaths are needless. We’ve known about Black Wednesday for yonks. New doctors are not idiots; every day they make decisions that save or improve people’s lives. But there is no substitute for experience when someone’s existence is at stake. The night shift, for instance, is terrifying for junior doctors, left to care for critical patients armed only with the telephone number of a duty  consultant they barely know.

Some shadowing was introduced last year, but why not stagger the changes? Swap jobs away from August, when so many consultants are taking their summer holidays? Put more consultants on duty so they can support and induct their junior colleagues? Limit routine surgery, to allow senior doctors to more closely supervise those making their ward debuts?

The danger of understaffed hospital wards can no longer be ignored, according to Professor Don Berwick in his long-awaited report into patient safety, released yesterday. Sure, it’s more convenient for those drawing up clinical rotas if everyone plays musical chairs together. And the BMA insists that NHS trusts must accommodate  those consultants who want their fortnight by the pool in August. But what’s the priority here?


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