NHS Strikes Placing Patients at Risk

Junior doctor NHS strikes to put patients at risk.
BSC, LLB (Hons) & LPC Sophia Azam
Legally reviewed by: BSC, LLB (Hons) & LPC Sophia Azam Updated: In: Medical Negligence

Almost a year on from the first NHS strikes over pay and conditions, junior doctors in England are going on strike again. The six-day strike that spans from the 3rd January to the 9th January marks the longest NHS strike on record. Health service executives are stating that the strike could result in the most difficult start to the year the NHS has ever faced in view of the timing in the New Year period.

Life-Threatening Delays in Critical Procedures

The last of the NHS strikes, which took place just before Christmas, lasted for three days and nearly 90,000 appointments and operations were postponed. NHS officials believe this strike will lead to over 200,000 operations and appointments being rescheduled, taking the total to more than 1 million since the start of the junior doctor industrial action. This disruption poses severe risks, especially during a time of the year when the NHS is already under significant pressure.

Nick Hulme, chief executive of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, argues that ‘patients are paying the price’ as the strikes continue.

For each cancelled appointment ‘there’s a life, there’s a delay, there’s not being able to get back to work, there’s an impact on them psychologically, socially and physically, so we need to find a solution quickly’, he adds.

Impact on Patients

Nimish Patel, Senior Associate at AWH, says: “ As patients face cancellations, delays, and disruptions, the toll on their lives becomes apparent. The ongoing industrial disputes contribute to a growing waiting list crisis, with patients experiencing missed care and heightened anxiety about the long-term consequences of treatment delays.

As a result, patients are facing life threatening delays for time sensitive investigative or elective procedures that could prevent conditions such as cancer, strokes, and heart attacks.”

Understaffed NHS Struggling to Cope

With 121,070 vacancies in secondary care in England, including 8,858 medical vacancies, the NHS is already grappling with a shortage of medical professionals. The British Medical Association (BMA) recently highlighted a shortage of 10,000 doctors, leading to 500 preventable deaths each week. The strikes further compound the staffing crisis, resulting in delays in care for tens of thousands of patients.

Plans to cover for striking junior doctors face uncertainty as even a few senior doctors being absent due to illness could jeopardize these contingency measures. The current staffing levels, already critically low, are unable to brunt the impact of the ongoing strikes.

Hospital trusts have been increasingly under scrutiny after Care Quality Commission investigations have revealed toxic environments, low staffing levels, and bullying. AWH Solicitors recently covered the nationwide issue affecting the NHS, leading to backlogs and medical errors. With hospitals such as University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) being given a deadline of the 15th March 2024 to improve, the NHS strikes may significantly impact the hospital’s efforts to improve their care standards.

Immediate and Long-Term Impact of NHS Strikes

Immediate Consequences of NHS Strikes

The six-day strike is anticipated to have a massive impact on NHS operations, with officials projecting a significant disruption to routine care. Hospital trusts express concern about managing patient safety and quality during this period, prioritising urgent care but inevitably rescheduling planned care for later in the new year.

Long Term Concerns of NHS Strikes

The aftermath of the strikes will linger, affecting patient care for weeks. NHS England’s national medical director warns of a “significant impact on almost all routine care,” with a substantial portion of the medical workforce participating in picket lines. The disruption extends beyond the strike period, affecting the recovery of services and coping with additional demand.

Critical Delays and Strain on Patient Care

Closure of A&E Departments

Numerous A&E departments, including Cheltenham A&E, have already closed due to the strike, diverting patients to alternative emergency care facilities. The impact is particularly severe for patients in life-threatening conditions, as delays can have far-reaching consequences.

Furthermore, we anticipate that the strikes will worsen the problem of discharging patients from the hospital without putting adequate care in place for their return home. Therefore, we expect that patients will experience readmission within a short period of time.

The Toll on Patient Health and NHS Finances

Miriam Deakin, Head of Policy and Strategy, emphasises that the recorded one million delayed patient procedures do not capture the full extent of the problem. Patients not booked on strike days also bear the brunt of the disruption, raising concerns about the long-lasting effects on their health due to delayed treatment.

The strikes have already cost the NHS around £1 billion, including lost income from postponed procedures and expenses related to hiring expensive staff cover. The prolonged industrial action raises fears about the enduring impact on both patients and the financial stability of the NHS.

NHS Strikes Call for an Urgent Need for Resolution

Although trust leaders recognise why so many staff feel the need to strike, the longer the industrial action goes on the greater the long-term impact will be on patients and the NHS. The urgent need for a resolution is places stress on a focus on prioritising patient health and restoring the stability to the healthcare system.

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