Covid Scotland: Doctors' safety at risk as they work to help NHS recover, says union

The health and safety of junior doctors is at risk as they face long shifts and limited breaks amid pressure on the NHS, BMA Scotland has warned.

The union called for urgent action to improve the wellbeing and work-life balance of doctors, including limits to consecutive long shifts and protected rest breaks.

A snap survey by the union of 200 junior doctors found just five per cent said they were never worried about their personal safety or that of colleagues when working long shifts of 10 hours or more.

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Alisdair Gilmour, chair of the British Medical Association’s Scottish Junior Doctors Committee, said risks to safety could include commuting or driving home from a shift when too tired to do so safely.

As pressure mounts, the health and safety of junior doctors are being put at risk. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Colleagues have told BMA Scotland they are concerned for their health and personal safety, or that of their colleagues, whilst working long shifts – this cannot go on,” he said.

"Working consecutive long shifts further increases the risk of fatigue; the more long shifts you do, the higher the risk – and half of those who responded to our survey currently have at least four consecutive long shifts in their rota.”

He added: “Medicine has always been a challenging career, it's a 24-hour, seven days a week profession.

“You can't stop the work required, but we do have to find a way to make it safe for people to work, where they don't feel exhausted, and to minimise the impact it has on their lives.”

Alisdair Gilmour is chair of SJDC

The BMA called for “straightforward and simple” changes to be made at every level – from the Scottish Government introducing regulation to limit long shift patterns, to staff being given rotas in advance in order to be able to plan rest time with family and friends.

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These include a limit of four consecutive long shifts, better rest areas, a “do not disturb” policy on breaks, and a nationwide system allowing staff to book confirmed leave in advance.

The union called on health boards and the Scottish Government, to act now before the problem grows.

As pressure mounts, the health and safety of junior doctors are being put at risk. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“In recent years there has been progress made towards safer working hours and patterns for junior doctors in Scotland – however more can, and must, be done to minimise the detrimental effects well evidenced and associated with shift work and fatigue,” Dr Gilmour said.

"The recent Scottish Government NHS recovery plan acknowledges the NHS is struggling and the requirement to put the wellbeing of staff first.

“However, it does not feature any plan to retain current staff or build the workforce needed for the future – and that is worrying for junior doctors.

“We are asking for tangible changes to working life for junior doctors across Scotland to address this key issue of wellbeing as we recover from this pandemic.

"To preserve the future medical workforce, we need to evolve – and a transformational change in workplace culture is desperately required.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Looking after our NHS staff is vital for their own wellbeing, but also for that of their patients. We have so far allocated £8m for wellbeing support for the health and care workforce in 2021/22, an increase of £3m on 2020/21.

“We welcome this report from the British Medical Association. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the NHS under more strain than ever before and we are all indebted to junior doctors and everyone who works in our health service.

“This report makes many constructive suggestions about how conditions for junior doctors can be improved, to give them a better work-life balance and ensure they are supported in the work they do. The government will give these proposals serious consideration and urge health boards to do the same.”

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