Who’s Winning the PR Battle: The Junior Doctors or the Government?

One thing’s for sure: the junior doctor’s strike has caught the attention of the media, press, politicians and pretty much everyone else in the country. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months and have somehow missed it, here’s the lowdown: junior doctors are objecting to the prospect of a new contract that – for some doctors – will see them work longer hours for less pay. To make matters worse, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said junior doctors would be forced to sign the new contract from August.

For junior doctors, the issue is about more than just contracts. It’s the culmination of growing frustration about the difficult conditions in which they work and train, and the way they’re treated. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, it’s playing out right in the public eye – and it’s getting nasty. Without some PR intervention, the reputation of the medical profession as a whole could be in jeopardy.

Are patients losing patience?

The medical industry is rooted in a strong set of values, with patient safety at the core. And doctors are the most trusted profession of them all. Critics argue that with this trust comes great responsibility and doctors should be putting the needs of patients above their personal issues. And yet, tens of thousands of junior doctors downed their stethoscopes to take part in the strikes. On the most recent day of action they withdrew emergency cover too.

As a result of the all-out strikes on 26th and 27th April alone, more than 125,000 operations and appointments were cancelled, leaving thousands of patients feeling abandoned and let down by the NHS.

Needless to say, the strikes are extremely controversial, but who are the PR winners and losers, and how can reputations be restored?

The case for the government

Jeremy Hunt’s handling of the dispute has been poor. First he said all the wrong things, then he said nothing, then he came back and tried to avert an all-out strike by saying ‘the new contract offers junior doctors who work frequently at weekends more Saturday premium pay than nurses, paramedics and the assistants who work in their operating theatres.’ That’s not really championing a united NHS, is it? Verdict: PR loser.

The case for junior doctors

The British Medical Association, (the doctors’ union), said the junior doctors would much rather be in hospital doing what they do best: caring for patients. But they’d done everything they could to make their voices heard – from protests, to marches and petitions. By continuing to ignore them, the government left them with no choice but to strike.

Despite reassurances from the BMA that senior doctors would provide emergency care on strike days, the industrial action has shaken public confidence. A new poll by Ipsos MORI found that although the majority of people (57%) still support junior doctors, it’s down almost ten percentage points from the 65% who backed them in March. Verdict: PR loser.

How can the NHS restore public confidence?

Sadly but inevitably, patients have been the biggest loser of all in this ongoing saga. Media reports have expressed concern from both inside and out of the NHS regarding the backlog of postponed operations and what this will mean going forward. As the ‘customers’ of the NHS, patients need to see a united showing from the NHS, its employees and the politicians directly involved in policy.

Surprisingly, reports following the first day of the all-out strike showed that hospitals ‘coped well’ and emergency care was quieter than expected. It looks like clear communication to the public in advance of the strike, to only use the service in an absolute emergency, worked. Perhaps this is a tactic that could be employed more consistently going forward to ease the ever-increasing burden on our NHS.

Here’s hoping that all parties will come back around the negotiation table soon and agree on a path forward that not only means a fair contract for junior doctors, but a fair outcome for patients too.

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