NHS Scotland: Patient safety is being put at risk by exhausted doctors working shifts of 12 hours or more – Dr Lailah Peel

Doctors in Scotland – all NHS staff for that matter – have been working flat out since before the pandemic struck last year. For junior doctors particularly, Covid-19 threw us a real curveball.

Our training skidded to a halt overnight. Many of us were taken from our posts and moved onto the “frontline” to deal with the onslaught of the pandemic. Some of us were just months away from completing training to move into senior roles. It hit us like a tonne of bricks.

We are slowly starting to find our feet again. Colleagues who should have moved into senior roles a year ago have now had the opportunity to do so. Training has mostly restarted, although it’s significantly restricted and will likely continue to be for some time. We are trying to juggle this with the ongoing efforts to fight the pandemic and deal with the patient backlog it has resulted in. It isn’t easy.

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Even before the pandemic, junior doctors in Scotland were under pressure and we had concerns for our well-being and work-life balance. We were at risk of burnout even from very early on in our careers and we called for urgent action to improve our working lives.

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Nineteen months down the line, many junior doctors in Scotland are really considering how their work impacts upon their personal lives and whether they are able to achieve the work-life balance they need. Even small things like receiving our rotas on time – at least six weeks in advance – which, incredibly, doesn’t happen across all health boards would allow us to make plans to see family and friends, something which many of us haven’t felt safe to do for fear of spreading coronavirus to loved ones.

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You’ve possibly heard stories of doctors barely leaving hospitals during the pandemic, working shifts that stretch on into the night, not getting breaks, perhaps having to find a chair or even floor space to grab some sleep.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most of those doctors were juniors. Better rest facilities were provided for NHS staff at the start of the pandemic, along with better access to hot food and drinks at night. However many of those provisions have started to wane and with that comes a drop in morale.

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The well-being of NHS staff working long hours is vital (Picture: Lynne Cameron/PA)

I look around at my colleagues and I can see the exhaustion in their faces: they’ve just worked yet another 12-hour shift and now they have to drive home – or they still haven’t finished and need to see five more patients.

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It’s not safe, for them or the patients. Ensuring rest facilities are provided for staff, particularly overnight and post-shift for those too tired to drive home, would go a long way towards ensuring better well-being.

This isn’t just for us. By protecting the health and safety of staff, employers are in turn protecting the health and safety of patients, by allowing their workforce to adequately rest, reducing fatigue and improving well-being. And patient safety is paramount to everything we do – it’s why we became doctors in the first place.

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We need to preserve the future medical workforce, and to do that we need to evolve. A transformational change in our working lives is so desperately required.

Dr Lailah Peel is chair of the BMA’s Scottish junior doctor committee

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