Intended for healthcare professionals

Career Focus

Sympathy for the doctor

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 06 January 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:s3
  1. Sandy Nelson, senior house officer in accident and emergency
  1. Royal Alexandra Hospital, Glasgow sandy{at}


Sandy Nelson speaks out about the public backlash against the medical profession

Trust me, I'm a doctor. A line used in jest, but in days gone by it was a statement that was good enough for most people. Doctors knew best. They were fluent in the medical mysteries of the human body. They didn't require the judgment and queries of mere mortals like the patient whose health they were trusted with.

Fortunately, times have changed. A paternalistic attitude in a doctor is no longer desirable or the norm. Patient autonomy and choice, informed consent, holistic health care—these are buzz words in a new and patient oriented health service.

Changing public perception

However, it seems that while in general doctors have cottoned on to the fact that patients need to be treated like humans, and patients have realised that doctors are not deities, there is an increasing tendency to demonise the health profession and a growing intolerance of medical error.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. But this age of multimedia outlets, 24 hour news, and a tense political atmosphere is becoming less and less conducive to sympathy for doctors.

Detrimental press

Over the past decade we have seen the Shipman atrocities, the Alder Hey organ scandal, and numerous expert medical witnesses discredited and pilloried by the press. We have the ongoing saga of Modernising Medical Careers, the new general practitioner contract, the new consultant contract, the introduction of NHS 24, closure of many local health services, centralisation of specialties, and a general feeling that public confidence (not to mention staff morale) in the medical profession is at an all time low.

All of this has combined into what seems to be a reduced tolerance by the press and general public for issues surrounding doctor's wellbeing, remuneration, and work-life balance. As stated earlier, the days where doctors were idolised and rewarded like triumphant sports heroes are rightfully dead and buried. But these have given way to an intolerant and cynical attitude to our professional wellbeing.

Lack of interest

This was brought home by a recent front page article in the Glasgow Herald in which junior doctors were protesting at the disastrously ill thought through proposals by Modernising Medical Careers to consider Scotland as one deanery for the purposes of applications to the new specialist training schemes. This would mean that a married couple with a mortgage, kids, and settled home life could be sent to opposite ends of the country by a computer designed by ignorant policymakers. The article was unbiased, reflective, and put the concerns of the doctors succinctly and sensitively. However, the letters page had only two replies, one of which was from a member of the public stating that this was an excellent development because it meant that doctors would be forced to work in unpopular, isolated places (and so they should, the ungrateful spoilt so and so's). In contrast to these two replies, an article last year of similar length on the implementation of NHS 24 garnered a whole page of letters.

“While in general doctors have cottoned on to the fact that patients need to be treated like humans, and patients have realised that doctors are not deities, there is an increasing tendency to demonise the health profession”

This just goes to show that these days the public is far more interested in the services provided rather than doctors' pay and conditions. What they fail to realise is that doctors' (and all other health professionals') job satisfaction, remuneration, flexibility, choice, and morale are all essential to the efficient running of the NHS.

Doctors needs

We don't want to be treated like royalty. We don't want our names spoken in hushed, reverent voices. We'd just prefer not to be treated like lepers because we want a little more say in where and how we work. The gratuitous new pay deals for senior doctors may have alienated swathes of the public, but they were long overdue, hideously blown out of proportion by the media, and are still much less than rates other professionals of similar length and intensity of training can command.

So give us docs a break. Trust us—we deserve it.

View Abstract