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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 18 December, 2018

Column: A standard below basic human rights – this is how doctors are treated in Ireland

Don’t be fooled into thinking all doctors have “cushy” lives; the truth is, non-consultant hospital doctors are striking later this month because their chaotic working hours are not good for them or for patients, writes Dr Bríd McGrath.

Dr Brid McGrath

OVER THE TIME that I have been writing articles on about the working conditions of Ireland’s non-consultant doctors, it has become increasingly apparent how appalling these conditions are. The public have mixed views on doctors, a lot of them informed by an often prejudiced media.

Time and again though, I hear horror stories of shifts greater than 36 hours, sharp practices regarding payment, mistreatment and outright abuse. Yet these stories, each appalling in their own right, fall on deaf ears. If any other sector of employee was treated so badly, the public would be outraged.

Work conditions are such that doctors jeopardise their own safety, and forego having rest, food or family life. The personal fall-out for individuals is often disturbing.

What could ever justify these working conditions? What makes it acceptable?

Doctors are routinely misrepresented

The mainstream media singles out doctors as a group, hounding them with misrepresentative stories, stories that paint doctors as villains within the State. This incites a painful litany of abusive public comment. All of this, in light of the knowledge that doctors are one of the career groups most vulnerable to suicide. Surely this country is meant to developing an awareness of suicide prevention, not baiting people with a plummeting self-worth?

In short, could the behaviour of the Irish State and media regarding doctors be an out-and-out abuse of human rights?

I decided to see how Ireland measures up to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human in its adherence to the letter and spirit of this document when it comes to doctors. We are talking about basic human rights here – I would ask anyone who would like to comment on doctors to first consider us as humans: we are humans.

Violation 1: Article 3 states a right to “security of person”; it is clear that current working conditions are often not safe for doctors in a literal physical sense.

Violation2: Article 5 states that no-one should be subject to “inhuman and degrading treatment”, which would seem to be a frequent feature of the working lives of non-consultant doctors. Placing a workload that cannot physically be met on doctors is cruel, to say the least.

Violation 3: Article 7 states that all are entitled to the “equal protection of the law”, doctors should have the equal protection of employment law in this country, not some watered-down version that is convenient for the State.

Violation 4: Article 17 states the right “to marry and found a family”: while the State does not make it illegal for hospital doctors to have a family, it makes it damn next to impossible. The career structure does not accommodate women who have children.

Violation 5: Article 19 states that everyone has the right to “freedom of expression and opinion”, which means that no Consultant should be expected to honour a HSE contract that prevents them from commenting on their employer.

Violation 6: Article 23 states that everyone has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work”. That definitely means that hours should be limited, all hours should be paid, there should be breaks; there should not be fear of discrimination if anyone speaks out against unjust conditions.

Violation 7: Article 24 states that everyone has the right “to rest and leisure” and “reasonable limitation of hours”. I don’t think I need to explain how obviously abused this right is.

The final Article states “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

What you can expect during the doctors’ strike

As we will watch the inevitable unfolding of the dirty-tricks campaign by the State and mainstream media over the next few weeks, let me tell you what to expect:

  • Already, one national newspaper has developed an interest in hand-washing that they think deserves a front headline, expect an unusual emphasis on this topic and not on the outdated facilities in our hospitals;
  • There will be statements that “junior doctors” earn in excess of €100,000 in overtime, which will neglect to mention that this figure only applies to about 10 actually senior registrars in specialities such as surgery, who habitually work 80-100 hours per week. No one will talk about the unpaid hours that thousands of other doctors experience;
  • On the days of the strikes, there will be stories about frail elderly people and children who had to wait all night on trolleys, implying that emergency services were not provided. What won’t be mentioned is that this happens every other day.

In the weeks that come, I would implore the public to not allow themselves to be “played” by the media. Cynical elements in certain editorial rooms clearly believe that scapegoating doctors for the ruin of this country is like shooting fish in a barrel. Targeting doctors during an industrial action for basic rights, is a violation of basic rights in itself.

The public will ultimately lose out if this country continues to mistreat its doctors, not just because of strikes, but because the number of doctors willing to work in these conditions will continue on its inexorable downward spiral. Who would work without basic human rights in the Western world? Answer that question in your head.

To read other articles by Dr Bríd McGrath on the working conditions of non-consultant doctors in Irish doctors, please click here.

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Dr Brid McGrath

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