British junior doctors are planning to go on strike later this month. Again. They have walked out of their jobs multiple times before, expressing dissatisfaction with the workload and low pay. Relocating is becoming a serious option, with Australia being a popular choice among these doctors.
For many years, there has been a severe shortage of doctors in the United Kingdom. In England alone, there is a shortage of over 8,500 doctors, and this number increases when considering vacancies in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. It’s even more painful to note that there is no shortage of something else in the UK: enthusiastic stories from mostly young British doctors who have emigrated to Australia to work.
Take 27-year-old Aoibhín Bradley from Belfast, for example. She shared her happiness about life “down under” on the Wales Online website just before the summer. She and her boyfriend, who is also a doctor, left for the east coast of Australia in September of last year, right after completing their foundation training, which is similar to medical internships in the Netherlands. They were able to start working at the Gold Coast University Hospital in Queensland. Bradley mentioned that she has never regretted her decision.
Reading her story, it’s not surprising. Bradley, like many young junior doctors in the UK, used to work extremely long shifts, often with three hours of overtime per day. She earned the equivalent of 2,500 euros net per month while working 48.5 hours per week in the UK. In Australia, she earns over 1,200 euros more per month while working 12.5 hours less per week.
Eight months after her move, the young doctor still can hardly believe it. Looking back, she described her former working conditions in the National Health Service (NHS), the British public healthcare system, as “miserable.” She said, “I could never take a break. I lost four kilos because I often worked 12-hour shifts without eating.”
It is primarily the workload that many “junior doctors,” the British equivalent of junior physicians in the Netherlands, complain about. They are treating doctors who have completed their medical education but still work under the supervision of a specialist. In the UK, this period can last between five and ten years. British junior doctors are known for working exhausting shifts, just like nurses, who are even more in demand in British hospitals.
At the same time, salaries have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Comparing the salary information from the NHS with that of Dutch healthcare staffing agency TMI reveals that the incomes for junior doctors in the UK and the Netherlands are roughly the same: 40,000 to a maximum of 70,000 euros gross per year. However, it should be noted that in an expensive city like London, a gross income of 40,000 euros per year is not sufficient, with more than half of it going towards rent.
These complaints have led to strikes. Later this month, from September 19th to 22nd, English hospital doctors will once again temporarily stop working. This won’t happen in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, as their NHS systems operate independently from England’s. This year, English junior doctors have already gone on strike for several days in March, April, June, July, and August, causing significant issues. Nearly half of the 125,000 doctors in England are junior doctors. Furthermore, specialists will also be participating in the strike this month.
However, there will always be enough doctors working to provide urgent and acute care for all patients. Patient safety must not be compromised. Nevertheless, due to the strike actions, hospitals will have to cancel tens of thousands of patient appointments, just as they did during previous doctors’ strikes. This is happening while 7.6 million people in England are already on waiting lists for non-life-saving medical procedures, such as knee or hip surgeries.
But the most pressing long-term question is: who will eventually tackle the long queues in England, as well as in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland? This becomes a difficult puzzle when more and more young NHS doctors prefer to work elsewhere. Some switch to less hectic and better-paying private hospitals within the country, while others, like Bradley, go abroad.
In 2022, the British Medical Association (BMA), a doctors’ union, conducted a study to see how many doctors were considering leaving the NHS. In a survey of 4,553 junior doctors, 40 percent said they would do so immediately if they could find a job elsewhere. Of that 40 percent, one-third said they planned to move abroad for work in the coming year. Australia was the most frequently mentioned dream destination. This suggests that about 5 percent of all 50,000 British junior doctors are considering relocating to places like Sydney or Melbourne in the near future.
In 2022, nearly 7,000 British doctors applied for the certification required to work as doctors abroad, a 15 percent increase compared to the years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary data suggests that the number of certification applications will continue to rise this year.