Pay misdiagnosis

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 February, 1998, 12:00am

It must be more than a coincidence that every time there is any sort of hospital staff crisis, it is junior doctors who bear the brunt. Before the authorities seriously consider making a cut in allowances paid to medical officers, they ought to give careful consideration to the consequences.

Staff costs are a major factor in the medical budget and it may be that economies will have to be made. But a Government proposal that junior doctors should have their allowances cut to bring them into line with civil servants, verges on the absurd.

In their first year, medical graduates receive a basic salary of $40,000 plus a cash allowance of $8,800 representing the difference between civil service benefits - such as a pension, housing and education costs - and those of the Hospital Authority.

But there are no grounds for comparison. During an internship, young doctors are at the sharp end of hospital life, working long, unsocial shifts which can last up to 33 hours with perhaps no more than three half-hour breaks. In these circumstances, they are called on to make life and death decisions when they have often been on their feet for almost as many hours as a civil servant spends in a working week.

At the start of their careers, medical officers are in no position to rebel. They have already had a cut in their contract of employment, limiting it to a three-year term with no guarantee of a job at the end of it. A doctor's lot improves dramatically later in their career, but it is in the early stages that they are developing their doctoring skills, and the lives of newly admitted patients may depend on their stamina and ability to diagnose under pressure.

Public confidence in the hospital service has been severely shaken by a succession of medical blunders, and the authorities have been trying to relieve the workload and stress on medical staff. All their efforts will be fruitless if they cut the take-home pay of juniors.

So far, this is only a proposal. Yet it is of sufficient concern to the Public Doctors' Association to prompt a protest. After five years of study, young doctors expect to work hard to prove their worth, but the fact that they have no negotiating power should not be exploited. If cuts must be made, they should be sought elsewhere.