Thuvaraka Ware is a GP Registrar working in Camden. She tutors medical students at UCL in community medicine and believes primary care research will shape clinical and public health policy over the coming years.
I am a junior doctor. I went through medical school, foundation and speciality programmes with relative ease and multiple accolades. I married a guitar playing, Aston Villa supporting historian I met at university who entered policy work. I would scoff at his insistence that politics was important – I truly believed that I was doing the only true and noble job in the world. Politics was beneath me.
Experiencing the furore of our contracts dispute I now realise how completely and naively politically illiterate I was. To disengage with this process and say it does not concern us for we are public servants has proved detrimental. If the health secretary has done nothing else, he has at least caused a political awakening amongst our generation and I am not ashamed to say that at times this has been thrilling. I have attended marches, canvased local support, given interviews, written and appeared in newspapers and journals and signed numerous group letters to various news outlets.
Social media has played a central role in this. Facebook groups have allowed us to feel connected to almost every other junior doctor in the country in some way, answer queries, debate responses and celebrate victories. The twittersphere, has enabled rapid dispersal of information and opinion. Both these have helped nurture and spread the message of an essentially grass roots campaign, like #meetthedoctors, to fight the imposition of a contract that is unsafe for patients and unfair to us.
The unravelling of this dispute in the media has strengthened the resolve of many of my peers to become more politically active. Many believe that the media have to take responsibility for their role in exacerbating this dispute – you may recall the now retracted 1998 Wakefield study and subsequent rise in incidence of measles as an example. Indeed the online national survey by Gan et al1 to explore the ‘Hunt effect’ suggested that in the months after reporting of Jeremy Hunt’s irresponsible interpretation of the Freemantle epidemiological study2, there were patients presenting later than they would have to emergency services, afraid the weekend care would be suboptimal. Patient care was potentially compromised as a consequence.
By engaging with the press, we are able to project our concerns whilst also being able to hold them accountable to what they write – my peers have written letters to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and a complaint about a report on our pay was recently upheld by the BBC. This increased engagement between our media and the scientific community can only be a good thing, hopefully leading to an improved relationship long term.
As we enter the next chapter of this dispute with a clear mandate for industrial action it is life affirming to realise that we are not alone. Many patients, allied health professionals and other emergency staff understand the nature of this fight and stand with us. Becoming politically aware does not have to mean just engaging with politicians and the status quo. It is also the way we connect on a meaningful level with those around us to make our immediate and extended social, cultural and economic environment relevant and bearable.
Although I am yet like a child taking my first steps in this new landscape, my feelings of political apathy are diminishing and I sense that change is possible. I’m aware that our contracts debate will take many months to resolve. But I am hopeful that our political awareness and social responsibility will survive the crest of this campaign post crisis, whatever the outcome.
1. Gan HW in response to BMJ 2015;35:h4596. Available online: http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h4596/rr-52
2. Freemantle et al., Increased mortality associated with weekend hospital admission: a case for expanded seven day services? BMJ 2015;351:h4596