This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay, was bought for me for my birthday this summer. I don’t usually go in much for non-fiction, especially of the auto-biographically-based variety, not out of any specific prejudice, I just really enjoy stories that are in no way based upon any kind of “true story”. But I must say I really enjoyed reading Kay’s account of life as a junior doctor for the NHS.
Based largely within obstetrics and gynaecology wards, there are many opportunities for a laugh, snigger or wince at the accounts of the various items removed from people’s bodies, the not-so-effective methods of contraception, and embarrassing procedures. But there is a deeper message situated within the humorous and grotesque, which is just what kind of price junior doctors have to pay to work within their chosen profession.
Kay tells a story of never ending shifts, having to accept staying late and working under an enormous amount of pressure whilst getting almost no sleep. Missing, or at least turning up late to almost every social occasion. The near-impossibility of getting time off to go on holiday, and even when you have, it being cancelled at the very last minute. Literally saving lives whilst having none of your own to speak of. Realising that after working an endless week of shifts, your hourly rate would be higher were you doing the most menial of jobs.
I have never been a junior doctor, or any other kind of medical professional. But I have felt the draining effect of 80 hour weeks, of not being able to be involved in most social activities because you’re either at work, or too exhausted because of work. The feeling when you realise that because you have done so much (unpaid) overtime, you are being paid much less than minimum wage. The feeling that your place of work has basically become your place of residence. The feeling that this isn’t how you imagined yourself spending your time, as well as feeling the urgent need to leave, do something else, anything else.
Life as a junior doctor sounds like hell. Kay though does not gloss over the positives—this is a role in which you get to make a huge difference to people’s lives, through saving or improving them, or bringing new life into the world. It is in many ways a selfless choice to make, choosing to help others at the expense of your own wellbeing. He makes the excellent point that it is absurd to get a sixteen-year old child to choose the path that their future career is going to take, with next to no knowledge about what that career might actually entail in real terms, something I would have to agree with.
If I had decided to embark upon a lifetime in medicine during my mid-teens, I would have imagined a job in which I got to make a genuine difference to people’s lives, a lot of pressure (obviously, this is life or death), and also to be earning a lot of money, and to be able to enjoy it. Because medicine is a good job, the kind of career and degree intelligent, sensible people go into, right? Personally, at age sixteen I decided to become an architect, which means that I have quite an eclectic array of A levels, but upon finding out the degree course was seven years long, finally came to the conclusion it was not the route for me (ironically, I have now spent eight years in higher education, and I’m still not an architect). I remain convinced that it would not be the right career choice for me, but if I had been better informed earlier, or had to make certain decisions later, would I have made different ones? Who can tell.
To me, Kay’s account of his life in medicine speaks to me of a society in which undue pressure is put upon young people to make decisions that will affect their whole lives, and then not taking suitable care of these people once they are not-so-young and already embarked upon the particular treadmill our country’s systems have made for them. A sink-or-swim kind of way of doing things. But it really shouldn’t have to be like that. A doctor should be able to get a proper night’s sleep, so should everyone. And to feel valued, appreciated, and happy to go to work. There is something wrong with an institution that doesn’t allow its staff to have a proper break, to eat, to relax. The NHS is important. It is also slowly being eaten away by privatisation, lack of staff and resources. It is becoming less and less sustainable, and putting far too much pressure on its staff.
As for myself, I am certainly not planning on going into medicine any time soon.
However I have had the germ of a thought concerning physics sprouting in my head recently…