How unpaid overtime reveals ‘toxic’ side of medicine

Alex Broom

6/05/2024 4:51:42 PM

Junior doctors have just won the largest underpayment class action in Australian history – but their real aim is a potential shift in culture.

Overworked junior doctor
Overworking junior doctors has been normalised for decades.

What’s been described as the largest underpayment class action in Australian legal history has just been settled.
Who was allegedly underpaid? Thousands of junior doctors who, subject to court approval, are set to share back-pay of almost a quarter of a billion dollars.
Amireh Fakhouri, who brought the claim on behalf of junior doctors in New South Wales, alleged that when they worked in the state’s public health system from December 2014 to December 2020, NSW Health had failed to pay the overtime and weekend meal break entitlements she and her colleagues were owed.
More than 20,000 claimants are now set to be eligible for a share in the nearly $230 million settlement.
But repayment was never the main goal of the class action. Ms Fakhouri, who is now training as a GP in Victoria, said she hoped instead it would change the work culture in medicine.
A rite of passage?
Our healthcare system has routinely relied on the labour of junior doctors. These include interns (those who have completed their university medical training and are in their first year of being practising doctors), residents (who have completed their internship and hold a general registration) and registrars (specialists in training).
Junior doctors often provide much of the staffing for night and weekend shifts and complete burdensome administrative tasks for consultants (senior doctors).
Overworking junior doctors has been normalised for decades. We see this depicted in books (such as The House of God and This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor) and TV shows (such as House and Scrubs).
The TV series This is Going to Hurt is based on the book by former UK junior doctor Adam Kay.
This is a safety issue.
Doctor fatigue has considerable effects on patient safety through potential medical errors, poor quality patient care, longer patient recovery, reduced physician empathy and impacts on the doctor–patient relationship.
2020 study found that when doctors reported even moderate tiredness their chance of making a medical error rose by 53%.
Put simply, stretched, demoralised and tired doctors will do harm. Eventually, that will affect you.
It’s not just long hours
The expectation of working long hours is only part of the culture of medicine.
Our research and global evidence shows ‘teaching by humiliation’ and other forms of verbal mistreatment have also been normalised.
2018 study of NSW interns and residents found more than 50% experienced bullying. Some 16–19% (mostly female) experienced sexual harassment.
Some of the junior doctors who are victims of mistreatment later become the perpetrators, perpetuating this harmful culture.
Junior doctors are suffering
The impact of long hours on junior doctors and of the abuse they are subjected to is vividly evident through research, including ours. Junior doctors have significantly high levels of depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.
As we’ve been saying for almost a decade, there is a desperate need for better work–life balance for junior doctors and deep culture change in our healthcare system.
But there is often little sympathy for junior doctors. In 2022, one hospital threatened to remove comfortable lounges to prevent juniors napping on quiet night shifts. Just last week, we heard of a similar case involving junior doctors at another hospital, who were told ‘sleeping is not part of your job description’.
A culture of silence
This class action was needed because on a day-to-day basis, junior doctors mostly do not complain.

They internalise distress as failure (not being tough enough) and fear that a diagnosis of depression or anxiety will result in patients and colleagues avoiding them.
They don’t report mistreatment or reject overwork as, often, their senior doctors control their career progression.
This is important, because contrary to perceptions of doctors as wealthy elites, our research shows junior doctors often find it hard to progress, get a job in their city of choice, or find full-time roles.
The pressure on junior doctors to ‘make it’ in an increasingly competitive environment grows stronger. Such professional problems reinforce the culture of not complaining for fear of blow-back.
Most of those who do take action, report ineffective or personally harmful outcomes when reporting to senior colleagues. This fulfils a vicious cycle of silence as junior doctors become ill but do not seek help.
We wanted to lift the silence
We used theatre to lift the culture of silence about healthcare worker distress due to workplace pressure.
We conducted interviews with junior and senior doctors about their experiences and used their verbatim stories to craft the script of the play Grace Under Pressure.
The aim is for this ‘verbatim theatre’ to facilitate conversations and actions that promote positive culture change.
What needs to be done?
It often takes brave public legal action such as this lawsuit to catalyse culture change – to nudge hospitals to prevent junior doctors from working back-to-back shifts, to protect time off for a personal life, ensure meal breaks, and provide means to hold powerful senior doctors to account.
Culture change is hard, slow and requires multi-pronged strategies. We need a safe way for junior doctors to report their concerns, and training so they know their options for responding to mistreatment. We need senior doctors and hospital managers to be trained in how to encourage and respond constructively to complaints.
Our research shows that when this happens, culture change is possible.
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First published in The Conversation. Read the original article.

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