Hospitals ride on broken backs of junior doctors

5 minute read

Peninsula Health underpaid its juniors and must now pay. That’s the opening of the floodgates this bullied population has been waiting for.

If hospital networks around the country are not quaking in their boots right now, they should be.

Anyone who is related to a doctor or knows one socially and has heard the horror stories of their training years knows junior doctors are treated appallingly.

It has been the reality for generations of young doctors coming through the hospital system.

Unpaid overtime, bullying, harassment, indifferent supervision and more responsibility than perhaps they are experienced enough for … the list is long and well established.

So last Friday’s Federal Court result, in which Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled Peninsula Health had breached the Fair Work Act by underpaying its junior doctors between 2015 and 2021, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dead to rights, sir, and every doctor (and hospital administrator) in the country knows it.

What comes as a pleasant surprise, however, is that junior doctors are finally standing up and saying enough is enough.

Dr Gaby Bolton, the lead applicant in the class action involving around 1500 doctors, will be paid $8345 for unpaid overtime worked at Peninsula’s Frankston Hospital in 2019 and 2020.

That doesn’t sound like much, but the reality is this ruling is the first drop in an ocean of claims that lawyers reckon could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This was never about the money,” Dr Bolton told the ABC. “No one will get any kind of life-changing amount of money out of this.

“The general public would be quite horrified to know the little amount of sleep that a lot of the junior doctors are running on.

“Junior doctors just put our head down and do the work because at the end of the day we do it for our patients.”

That’s true, but the reasons they stay quiet about it are about self-preservation.

Junior doctors are on 12-month contracts. They’re competing with each other to win selection into specialist college training programs and need references to make their applications stand out.

Those references come from their supervisors, the senior consultants who are signing off on their unpaid overtime, rostering them on neverending shifts and saying “I survived this bad treatment; so should you if you want to succeed”.

As Dr Bolton said, “if you buck the system, you may not get the reference you need, and it’s difficult to prove that kind of discrimination”.

The terrifying bottom line to this story is that this system of riding on the bowed backs of junior doctors is now ingrained in the financial success of the hospital systems across the country.

Pay junior doctors for the hours they work, and hospitals are going to go broke. This won’t happen, of course, because hospitals will just cut back on the care they provide. Ultimately, it will be the patients who pay the price in reduced services and access.

Unless state governments do something extraordinary, that is. If state governments funded hospitals appropriately (instead of building shiny new hospitals that look great but don’t have the staffing required to actually service the beds if they had a patient in them), and if employment agreements were enforced and junior doctors paid for the hours they worked, think how wonderful that would be.

Or better yet, how would it be if we had one centrally funded health system – a move that would take away the states’ ability to milk hospitals for every dollar, exploiting young doctors along the way. How good?

A start has been made. Hospital networks around the country should be taking note. As Andrew Grech, a partner at Gordon Legal who are running the class action Dr Bolton is part of, said Justice Bromberg’s decision would “likely govern the rights and entitlements of thousands of junior doctors”.

“You can’t trust the CEOs of the health services to honour the spirit of the wage theft legislation,” Mr Grech said. “It’s time to stop stealing the wages of junior doctors and start treating them with the respect they deserve.”

A Victorian government spokesperson told the ABC that the government takes its health workforce seriously and “wage theft is not tolerated in Victoria”.

Clearly it is, and has been by all state governments, for decades. Ask any doctor trained in the hospital system.

Other Victorian health services subject to class actions over unpaid overtime to junior doctors are Monash Health, Latrobe Regional Hospital and Bairnsdale Regional, Western Health, Eastern Health and the Royal Women’s, Alfred Health and St Vincent’s Hospital, Northern Health, Bendigo Health, Melbourne Health and Northeast Health Wangaratta.

In NSW in December 2020 a class action was filed against NSW Health on behalf of junior doctors across the state to recover millions of dollars in allegedly unpaid wages. Since then, nine more class actions have been filed across Australia on behalf of junior doctors who worked in the public health system between approximately 2015 and 2022.

Unlike in NSW, where junior doctors are directly employed by the state’s health department, doctors in Victoria and the ACT are employed by individual health services, which is why multiple class actions were being pursued, said Mr Grech.

He believes more than 36,000 junior doctors across NSW, Victoria and the ACT may be eligible to participate in the class actions, and — if they’re successful — potentially make a claim.

There is a reckoning coming, and it’s about time.

End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×