The intense pressures, understaffing and lack of support for medical staff are taking their toll
It’s incredible what you’re able to normalise just because you are seeing a lot of it. I reflect on my 15 months in hospital wards during the Covid-19 pandemic, and I’m not surprised by news that many of my colleagues are re-evaluating their career choices. According to a survey from the British Medical Association, one in five doctors are considering leaving the NHS, with respondents citing excessive workload, poor working conditions, low pay and problems with mental health. A quarter are considering a career break, and one in three are thinking about retiring early. The conditions we worked under as the health service battled Covid-19 precipitated this crisis. While the onslaught has now mercifully subsided, I, too, have had serious thoughts about whether to stay in a profession that I love and spent years of my life training for. But nothing really could prepare me for a typical night shift during the pandemic’s peak.
It’s 7.30pm. I hurry through the usual pre-work ritual and arrive at the “hospital at night” meeting for my first of a block of four shifts covering the medical wards, still humming the melody from the song I was listening to in the car on my way in. The co-ordinator informs us that due to a combination of sickness, self-isolation and a long-term rota gap, we are four doctors down tonight and efforts to plug the holes were in vain. I find myself amused by my own lack of surprise that nobody made themselves available for these shifts at such short notice. The bank of people who can be called upon are trainee doctors like me, and no doubt they only recently had the pleasure of drudging their way through 12 sleep-deprived hours responsible for more than 500 patients with half the usual complement of doctors. I can’t say I blame them for not having the mental or emotional currency left to come back for seconds. Pleas for doctors to work at “enhanced rates” fall on deaf, exhausted ears.
A typical night shift during Covid was carnage. After being informed we were four doctors down, the acute medical ward handover from the nurse-in-charge confirms our suspicions that our nursing colleagues have a similarly unhappy staffing situation. I know from experience that this, more than anything, means we are in for a rocky night. Being more closely involved with the beat-to-beat care of our patients, the nurses are the first to see problems emerge.