Harassed junior doctors explain why life is no fairytale

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The Independent Online
The long hours being worked by junior doctors are making them grumpy, sleepy and dopey. Now they are waiting to see whether Alan Milburn, the health minister, will respond to their plight like Snow White or the Wicked Witch. By Jeremy Laurance, health editor.

It's off to work they go but none of them feels like singing Hi-Ho, Hi- Ho. The British Medical Association introduced seven of the NHS's hardest workers to the press yesterday to explain why they lack a song in their hearts.

Dr Paul Flynn is dopey. He gets a couple of hours' rest a night if he's lucky, between helping new babies into the world at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. Dr Liz Soilleux is grumpy because she gets half pay (not the time and a half, as is customary in other trades) when she's doing overtime at Milton Keynes General Hospital. Dr Judith Kerr is sneezy but dare not take time off because there is no one to cover for her.

The weary junior doctors are hoping Alan Milburn will play Snow White and see that hospitals honour the terms of the New Deal on their hours of work. That imposed a maximum working week of 72 hours for most doctors - of which no more than 56 hours should be spent working, with the remainder on call - but the deadline for its implementation passed a year ago and there are still 5,600 juniors working more than they should, according to the BMA.

Yesterday Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the association's junior doctors committee, wrote to Mr Milburn to protest about the lack of progress on improving juniors working conditions. He said research had shown that working non-stop for 17 hours had the same effect on doctors' ability as a blood-alcohol level of 70 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood. "The effect of a tired junior doctor is similar to that of a person driving after a Christmas party. We are concerned about the potential threat to patient safety."

Dr Porter said that emergency patients admitted in the small hours were at less risk from overtired doctors than routine cases. "When you are doing routine tasks out of hours on top of the emergencies, that is what makes you tired and grumpy and you can miss little things," he said.

Six junior doctors had agreed to go public on the poor conditions under which they are still made to work. However, one - Bashful - preferred to remain anonymous after signs that earlier protests by him had affected his job prospects.

"I was struck that in two separate job interviews I was asked about my problems with working long hours. It was generally implied that I was a bit of troublemaker," he said. Dr Porter said many junior doctors working over Christmas would be denied even rudimentary comforts. In his letter to Mr Milburn, he said: "Many thousands ... have to endure sub-standard living conditions and face a night or bank holiday on call without a good hot meal.

This has grave implications for morale and is particularly depressing for those on call over the Christmas period."

He added that a new effort was needed from NHS Trusts to implement the limits on hours of work.