So… what do you do? Part 2

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I’m having a bit of a nightmare navigating the delicate social quagmire of speaking to another doctor when you’re a patient who also happens to be an ex-doctor.

It’s always a bit strange being treated and cared for when your job is to treat and care for others, but now that I’m no longer working clinically, it feels even stranger. I was hoping that you, my loyal readers, could give me your opinion.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the pitfalls of answering the “So what do you do?” question when you’ve just had a massive career change. Now I’m starting to get used to telling my weird I-used-to-be-a-doctor-but-I-left-and-went-into-content-marketing story. Sometimes I even miss out the doctor bit for the sake of ease, but what I’m still finding difficult and slightly bizarre is talking to medical professionals as a patient.

Just after I left medicine, I had to take my fiancé to our local hospital for a minor operation. I remember waiting in A+E, contemplating the mess that was my life, and then we were called into the triage room to be seen by a very nice orthopaedic SHO. I let him explain what was happening, even though I knew perfectly well what my fiancé’s diagnosis was, and exactly what would happen next. Somehow or other, during the conversation I let slip that I was a doctor myself, and the SHO looked surprised and slightly embarrassed as he said:

“Oh! You should have told me before! I wouldn’t have dumbed it down so much.”

I also felt a little embarrassed, but to be fair, my fiancé was the patient, so it was good that he understood what was going on.

But the other day, I went to see a consultant dermatologist. My mum accompanied me, but I was the patient this time. We shook hands and sat down, and he began to tell me about the layers of the skin – first dermatology lesson at medical school stuff -and after debating in my head for a few seconds as to whether I should say something, I remembered the orthopaedic SHO and ventured to interrupt him in what I thought was the politest way possible.

“I’m so sorry to stop you, but I thought I should just let you know – I’m a doctor too.”

Later, however, my mother told me that I’d been rather rude and she’d never been so ashamed of me in her life!

The consultant looked as embarrassed as the orthopaedic SHO, and took a hasty second look at the medical form I had filled in when I had arrived at the clinic. I had written ‘marketing manager’ as my occupation – no wonder he was confused! He then looked at my title – ‘Dr.’ of course. He hadn’t noticed that before. He apologised profusely, but I assured him that I wasn’t at all offended – he hadn’t known, after all.

I felt awful, because he was a nice man and I didn’t mean to make him feel that way. I wondered, as my ears grew hotter and hotter, whether I should have put ‘doctor’ as my occupation on the form instead. It wouldn’t have been strictly true, because I no longer work as a doctor, but to avoid major awkwardness perhaps a little white lie would have been somewhat justified.

I have thought about it many times since. Was my mother right? Was it so very rude to save him wasting time explaining things I already knew ? What if said time wastage had resulted in the consultation ending without my having the chance to ask more complex questions that I really did want to know the answers to? And if I had been inpatient, could I not be forgiven for wanting desperately to get to the point and discuss my treatment options?

I’m going to have to find a solution for this, because there are going to be other times in life when I’ll be a patient. I want to have kids in the next few years, and after the things I’ve seen, there’s no way I’d have them anywhere but a hospital.

So what do I do? Your help would be greatly appreciated as I try to figure out how on earth I, Dr Perera, former junior doctor, am going to explain myself.

Giving up my license to practice

walking across field

It felt so cool getting my full GMC registration. In a weird, geeky way it felt like the James Bond part of a medical degree – a Licence to Practice! I was strangely proud and excited.

But today I gave it up.

It was so easy to do – just a simple form to fill on the GMC website, and that’s it. It takes seven years to get that license, and seven seconds to let it go.

I’m still keeping my registration, because for some reason I still feel the need to have a connection with my old profession. I considered renewing my license for another year ‘just in case’, but I can’t really justify the expense as I’m not working clinically and have absolutely no intention of doing so any time soon.

I know it’s reversible. I know it doesn’t make any difference to what I’m doing now, and that it doesn’t take away anything I’ve achieved.

And yet, it still hurts.

It feels like signing the final paperwork in a complicated divorce. I hated Medicine, but I loved it too. As much as we didn’t suit each other, we were together long enough for it to become a huge part of my identity, and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

This week, the new F1s take their first fledgling steps in their new jobs, and junior doctors all over the country rotate into new specialties. The turmoil of the last year seems to have had no effect on the numbers of people applying for F1 training – which doesn’t surprise me really. For many it’s their first ever job, and it’s a chance to explore the profession and get a full registration.

I’m floating away from that world. I feel the bonds breaking and the distance widening. I sometimes look back in nostalgia, with that uncomfortable feeling that you were never really right together, but at the same time, you found a way to shift along well enough, and you did have some good moments.

There are times when I catch myself missing it terribly, particularly when I think about how great it was to communicate with patients. I was good at that, and it was the best part of the job. I recently comforted a friend of mine after a scan showed an unwelcome diagnosis, and in her gratitude for explaining things more fully, she lamented my leaving the medical profession, and wished that her doctors were more like me.

It was kind of her to say so, but in reality, when I was working as a doctor I never felt I had enough time to spend with patients to explain, to comfort and to guide, and I was often so exhausted that I could barely muster the energy to care very much. I can only smile at the idea of being a better doctor now that I’m out of the profession, and it makes me ashamed to think of what I was.

I think, having been a doctor, it never truly leaves you. There are some things that, once learned, can never be unlearned. Medicine is strangely addictive in that way.

But I can’t deny that I’m much happier where I am. Looking back and romanticizing my former life simply isn’t sensible, and I am in danger of seeing things through the rose-coloured glasses of hindsight.

It’s time to hang up my stethoscope and move on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which way to vote? My 5 main dilemmas…

junior contract

I feel like the doctors of this country have had some big decisions thrust upon them in the last couple of weeks. It’s unfair really – just as our country is plunged into uncertainty, the fate of our profession lies at our feet before we even have the chance to process what just happened. New contract – yes or no?

Right now I’m wondering whether I even should vote, given that I’m no longer practising as a doctor, and yet I feel compelled not to waste this chance to contribute to something that will affect so many of my relatives and friends. That’s a choice to make on its own.

And if I do indeed decide to vote, the real choice begins, and the considerations are far from simple.

1. The sheer complexity of Medicine

Part of the problem is that the working life of doctors is incredibly complicated.

Be honest, how many of you really read our old contracts before you signed them? How many of you, like me, didn’t even see a contract at all? In the three hospitals I worked in in my brief time as a medic, I signed just one set of papers.

The only time I actually read the old contract and contacted the BMA was when Queen’s Hospital tried to take the doctors’ Mess away while I was Mess President – at that point I read the terms and conditions word for word, and pulled out everything pertaining to the availability of food and overnight accommodation.

So deciding how the new Ts&Cs will affect day to day working life in the NHS is proving damn near impossible.

2. The LTFT dilemma

Judging by the conversations on Facebook, less than full time training is proving to be a real bone of contention, with many people confused about wording. If we, with our advanced degrees, can’t figure out what it all means, how on earth are payroll going to make sure you’re paid correctly?

In general actually, the wording of the new terms and conditions is poor, to the point where Justice for Health is actually challenging the writing itself.

3. The elephant in the room: pay

In all honesty, I rarely used to query payment issues when I was a doctor – the process of sorting it out was so flipping complicated that I often decided it wasn’t worth it. I also felt like a bad person for talking about money.

Now that I’m removed from Medicine, I can talk about money without feeling guilty or greedy, and I can say with conviction that doctors in this country are shoddily paid for what they do.  This new contract might be cost-neutral, but it does not change that fact. I know doctors in general don’t want to be paid more than they get now though, so that’s probably not a consideration. What I’m saying to doctors is this: you should be.

4. Working hours

I do worry that the new ‘Guardian’ for working hours will turn out to be just as complex. Call me cynical, but accurately tracking and safeguarding doctor working hours is going to be a big job – it will either have to be paid for, or done badly on the cheap. My bet is on the latter.

Say nothing of the fact that LTFT is defined as 40 hours a week; I’m sorry, but in the real world, 40 hours is a full time job. Calling it part time is a very clever way of making ‘full time’ hours ridiculous, and fooling part time trainees into thinking they have a good deal. Does the £1500 supplement make up for that? Well, I don’t mid telling you that, under the old contract, I worked as an LTFT for 40 hours a week, and received just under £20k p.a. pre-tax. Having the supplement would have made my salary marginally less insulting.

5. Brexit

Understandably, for many doctors, our current political mess is making the issue seem even more complicated. Many believe that we’re in enough turmoil as a country as it is, therefore a ‘no’ vote would be unwise. Rachel Clarke has said that no one will care about junior doctors in the fallout of the EU referendum.

What I would say, though, is that politics will always change, and one way or another, our international situation will eventually settle down. In ten years, these politicians will be a distant memory, whilst doctors will still be very much working. The PR and Research teams in my office are predicting massive overhauls in the NHS independent of the referendum, so it’s not really a reason to vote yes.

So, what to do…?

The last consideration on my mind – and it’s not a justifiable reason at all, so I haven’t included it on my list – is the thought of that pesky little fool, Jeremy Hunt, claiming that one reason he’d make a good PM is his ‘ability to negotiate’. If this contract is voted in, I have no doubt he’ll gloat over it and take credit for the whole thing.

It’s not a reason to vote no. But my God, it’s intolerable.

I still don’t know how to vote, or whether to vote at all; but what I do hope is that doctors will vote based on their true convictions, and not because they’re afraid of losing public opinion or of Brexit.

Whatever happens, this is my final message to doctors voting in this referendum: don’t let fear hold you back from fighting for what you believe is right.

 

Guest post: what we signed up for

I am so pleased to be able to publish this guest blog by River, writer of Hanging Round the Inkwell. She’s a doctor who’s had her fair share of bends in the medical career road, and talking to her is a solace to me. Her reflection is a pithy insight into something every doctor has either thought or been told after a tough day, and bears truths about the realities of being a doctor that the government still steadily refuses to acknowledge.

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“It’s what we signed up for.”

How often do you hear doctors say this? They describe some of the negative aspects of their job and then say ‘but I don’t mind because it’s what I signed up for’. I stayed late again, I missed my best friend’s wedding, I haven’t had a chance to pee in 12 hours, I’m exhausted after working 12 days in a row, I haven’t seen my family in ages… but it’s what I signed up for.

But is it though? Working as a doctor implies certain things. You will, at least at some point, have to be part of providing a 24/7 service which means you may work Christmas day and you will have to work some nights. You will have to deal with sick and dying people. You will have to have difficult conversations. You will have to take on responsibility.

Being a doctor, in and of itself, does NOT mean: having to work 12 days in a row, having to work 13 hour shifts, having to work without a break, having to cope with a workload that would be better suited to three or more people, having to stay late for non urgent reasons (usually on the whim of a senior colleague), having to explain to patients and relatives decisions and management plans made by other people, having to miss significant amounts of family time for a sustained period, having to miss events that are important to you and that you have given rota coordinators notice of. It does not mean having things dumped on you because other people can’t be bothered to deal with them.

So much and so many of the stresses of the job are, we are told, inevitable, part and parcel of being a doctor. We are told that they are what we signed up for. The fact is, for the vast majority of us this just isn’t true. We signed up to help people, to provide healthcare, to do applied human biology. For various reasons, and because of various interests and driving factors. We didn’t ‘sign up’ to be overstretched, to plug ever increasing gaps in an overstretched service, to work unsafe hours.

It would be possible to practice medicine in less relentless ways, and it would still be medicine, and we would still be doctors. Exhaustion and burnout aren’t what we signed up for and they shouldn’t be inevitable.

It’s as if I’m in the wrong body

After the initial novelty of my non-medical career subsides, and I slip back into every day life, I’m almost surprised how quickly this new situation has become ‘normal’.

Was it really just six months ago that I was trying to decide whether to quit Medicine? Did I seriously stay up all night agonising over my wasted education, questioning my life decisions and wondering how I could live outside of my career?

As unpleasant as all the drama was, life now feel strangely drab without it. My mum and I are now taking advantage of my new-found freedom. She’s been filling my weekends with fun wedding planning, and booking me in to sing at various concerts, which I’m really enjoying. I think she’s actually glad I’m able to do such things now, and it’s nice to spend more quality time with her.

My dad, who I think was deeply affected and disappointed when Medicine didn’t work out for me, and whom I could hardly face for the shame of it, seems to have recovered somewhat too. He grabbed me when I visited last weekend to help him set up a website. He and my mother are renovating a property in Sri Lanka and turning it into a little boutique hotel, which will be aimed mainly at tourists travelling around the Hill Country. Since online business is ‘my thing’ now, it’s nice to know I can use my new skills to help them. I’m also relieved that my relationship with him hasn’t suffered – he still talks to me about his interesting cases, discusses the latest radiological developments with me, and shows me interesting pathologies on MRI or CT scans that he’s reported. I feel like, through him, I still belong to the medical world in some small way.

This is the first time I’ve come close to missing Medicine, but at the same time, I know that I’m not missing it for the right reasons. I don’t yet feel that it’s calling me back – I just miss the familiarity of that part of my identity. It sounds awful, but before, my stressful state of being made sense to me; being a doctor is inherently stressful, and now, although I’ve left the profession, that mindset persists. In fact, I’ve been so highly programmed to cope with pressure that I’m inventing stressors for myself, mostly unintentionally, but partly in a vain attempt to replicate what I have left. I just can’t stop feeling ‘on edge’. The anxiety follows me around like a shadow, and I have to consciously remind myself that no one is going to die. It’s worrying that the NHS makes doctors feel this way – it’s not healthy.

Last night I rang one of my best friends, who is a high school teacher, and lamented a trait that she and I both seem to share: we crave the ‘buzz’. An addiction that started in our school days, the need for achievement has become central to our lives, yet it is horribly unsatisfying. It’s like a hit of heroin – reaching that top grade or winning that prize gives us a fleeting hint of pleasure and pride, but it doesn’t last. In mere moments, the achievement is thrown into the pile of our success and we move on to seek the next high. Combine this trait with a high-pressured, under-resourced job and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Now the buzz is gone. No more cardiac arrests, no more emergency surgeries, no more on-the-spot decisions to be made. I’m not Dr Peach any more, I’m just Peach who’s a marketing manager. I can’t even play the ‘rebel’ card any more, as my family seem to have accepted the change and adapted to it. I feel a selfish longing to be important again, to be valuable, even though as a doctor, I felt anything but important or valued. It’s all so paradoxical, I’m confusing myself. After all, most psychiatrists or dermatologists don’t deal with medical emergencies any more than I do – if I had become one of them, would I still miss the buzz, or would it be enough that I was helping people and changing lives? Who knows. I’m starting to think that, with my current way of looking at things, nothing would ever be enough for me.

I suppose I must learn to be content with life as it is, and to appreciate the wins more. I have now managed to cut my to-do list down to just four things: job, blog, novel and wedding. And if I think about it, life is still exciting. The adrenaline rushes may be considerably reduced in number, but there are plenty of interesting and wonderful things going on, even if they are happening gradually, over weeks and months instead of minutes and hours. I need to change my approach, and since the NHS environment isn’t really conducive to this kind of personal development, perhaps I needed to step out of it in order to grow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The forgotten six thousand (guest blog)

confusedmedic

One of the benefits of writing this blog is that it’s given me the chance to meet other medics who have decided to do different things with their lives. I’m so pleased to introduce this guest blog by theconfusedmedic, a fourth year medical student who has currently interrupted  her studies to pursue other things outside medicine. She currently working as a junior medical writer for a medical communications company and would like to explore medical writing as a career option. She plans to return to medical school in the next year or so to complete her MBBS but beyond that, she’d like to do something outside of practising clinical medicine.

A medical student’s view on the junior doctor contract dispute

Last year, a post on Reddit went viral and this heartbreakingly candid photo of a doctor grieving over one of his patients was shown to the world.

Evidently, the reality of being a doctor is tough. It’s draining, both emotionally and physically. They sacrifice so much of their time and self to help others. The reward can be great; doctors make a huge difference in people’s lives. However, if it goes wrong, they have to pick themselves up and do it all again for the next patient that comes through their door.

The junior doctor contract debate that has come to light over the last several months has angered and frustrated thousands of doctors around the country. The changes to the contract have been widely rejected and deemed unsafe for both doctors and patients. Yet, despite the strikes and protests, news broke recently that the contract was going to be imposed anyway.

The whole medical profession is up in arms yet again, and rightly so. The definition of the word ‘contract’ is: “A written or spoken agreement, especially one concerning employment, sales, or tenancy, that is intended to be enforceable by law.” The key word here is agreement. At no point has anyone agreed and accepted this contract. So why has the government suddenly decided they are going to force it on thousands of employees?

Besides the 50-odd thousand junior doctors in England, there is a significant cohort of people who were never really considered or consulted on the matter of a contract that would dictate their future – they are the 6,000 medical students in England whose voices were overlooked by the government. Six thousand people who will leave medical school and have a job contract enforced upon them that they didn’t agree to.

Amongst my friends and fellow medical students, the general consensus is one of outrage, disappointment, and uncertainty. Outrage at the audacity of the government to go ahead and impose a contract widely condemned as unsafe and unfair; disappointment at the lack of meaningful responses from the government; and uncertainty over what this means for the future of training.

I asked some of my friends for their personal views on the matter and what it would mean for them. Will they complete their foundation training in the UK then leave? Will they apply to do foundation in Wales/Scotland? Would they leave medicine altogether after graduation/somewhere down the line? Or will they stay in the NHS and fight this thing until the bitter end?

The responses were mixed. Some are considering and preparing for alternatives: Wales and Scotland; taking an F3 abroad and playing it by ear; taking the USLMEs. Some are looking for ways out of medicine altogether (I only have to look down my Facebook feed to see events pop up for ‘Alternative Careers in Medicine’ and the like, to know people are considering their options). Some don’t have much choice in the matter of whether to stay or go – the financial investment and ties to family and friends are too strong to consider leaving. And why should they have to?

One common thread amongst medical students is a desire to fight this contract for a better future for themselves, every other medical student that will follow them, and the patients of the NHS. A friend made a good point about how governments will always change and politicians are always attempting to make big reforms; we just have to fight them and stick it out. It took a lot of brave people to keep the NHS running thus far, and it will need a lot more brave people to do the same now.

However, I know for me personally, I don’t know if I could do it. Prior to this contract saga, I had my own personal doubts over a career in medicine anyway and it is looking even more unlikely that I will practice as a doctor. I actually find it quite sad to say because at one point that was what I wanted to do. Unfortunately somewhere along the way, I lost that desire and am currently on a leave of absence to work out what I want to do next. The thing is, it doesn’t surprise me to know that I am not the only medical student who feels this way.

We are incredibly lucky to have, in my opinion, the greatest healthcare system in the world. Sadly, the current government are hell bent on destroying it. The NHS probably won’t be sustainable forever, and it has its flaws, but there are so many more positives about it that we, as medical students, doctors, and members of the public, have to fight for. Medical trainees from all over the world aspire to work in the UK health system, but with the changes this contract will bring, all those highly sought after trainees will go elsewhere. And those that are in the UK already will leave. If practising doctors are considering their alternatives, and medical school graduates like myself are looking at other options, where does that leave the NHS?

It’s easy for the government to sit back and make whatever decisions they want to extend working times, reduce overtime pay, and remove safeguards for doctors. They are not the ones who will have to deal with the fall out. They won’t be the ones who will end up being treated by doctors who are tired, overworked, and damn right miserable about the conditions they work in. That will fall on the general public and all the people who rely on the NHS for their health care.

And it’s just not fair.

Read more from theconfusedmedic

Letter to my MP

Following the advice of the BMA, I wrote to my MP today. The words flowed easily. My god, I feel guilty for leaving and pursuing another career while my colleagues are left in this pile of shit, but I’ll be damned before I stop fighting for them – for us – for everyone.

Dear Ms Creasy,

I am writing to you regarding the junior doctor contract.

I am a ex-doctor. I worked for the NHS for two and a half years before leaving in December 2015. During my time as a doctor, I experienced the extreme pressures that medical staff find themselves under.

I did part of my training in Paediatrics, and I found it especially difficult not to be able to deliver the highest level of care to sick babies and children because we were constantly faced with staff shortages, a lack of resources and management decisions that were not based on good clinical practice, but were simply target-driven, cost-cutting exercises.

My health deteriorated physically and mentally while I worked as a junior doctor. Nowadays, doctors do not have access to the same facilities as they did in days gone by. No accommodation or parking is usually provided for junior doctors, so I often found myself walking home or to wherever my car was in the middle of the night after shifts. As a woman, this can be an incredibly intimidating thing to do – especially since junior doctors have to move around the country so much, so I was sometimes not familiar with the area I was working in.

Food and drink is not provided for medical staff any more, and I often found myself going through shifts without a moment to eat or drink anything. I fainted on shift a couple of times because of it.

Even in the short time I worked as a doctor, I saw and fought against the closure of ‘Doctors’ Messes’ – staff rooms that were often the only place in the hospital to rest, eat and sleep. I worked in several hospitals where I was doing night shifts without any sleeping provisions. If I ever did get a couple of hours to rest, I was expected to either sleep on the floor of an office or try to fashion a bed out of wheely chairs.

When I tell people my stories, they are shocked. I am not the sort of person who demands luxury at every turn, but the denial of basic human needs in the workplace seems absolutely absurd, given that these are the people who need to be able to make snap decisions literally about life or death.

I have been shocked and appalled by the way this issue has been handled by the government. The lies, deceit, spin and slander have completely destroyed any confidence the profession had in the Health Secretary, and the idea of imposition of a contract against the will of 98% of junior doctors, and without soliciting atheir input, is surely akin to exploitation.

I implore you to demand the answers from them that they have denied us. Jeremy Hunt has consistently claimed that doctors will not be working more hours, but how on earth can he simultaneously propose to increase the service to seven days a week without increasing staff numbers or budget? It just does not add up.

I can honestly tell you I am relieved not to be working as a doctor anymore, and my health has finally returned. Although my former colleagues truly love their jobs, I fear this contract will push more and more of them over the edge and soon there will be more like me.

We need people like you to speak on our behalf and put sustained pressure on the Health Secretary and Prime Minister. If this contract is successfully imposed, I believe the future of the NHS will be in jeopardy.

Yours faithfully,

Dr Priyanjalee Perera