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Feature Junior Doctors

Was there ever a golden age for junior doctors?

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 06 July 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i3662

Chinese translation


  1. Caroline White, freelance journalist, London, UK
  1. cwhite{at}

As junior doctors prepare for a new contract after fighting the government’s attempt to make them work more unsociable hours without extra pay, Caroline White asked seven doctors how the job today compares with being a junior doctor in the past

Doctors who trained before 2000 remember being exhausted by working for days with almost no sleep. But they also remember feeling well supported in their “firm”—a team typically comprising a junior house officer, a senior house officer, registrar, and consultant, who always worked together and covered for each other. They describe the rewards of getting to know their patients and the camaraderie of the doctors’ mess. Then the “New Deal,” which was designed to improve working conditions for junior doctors, and the European working time directive, which was introduced to protect all kinds of workers from exploitation and tiredness, heralded a change in working patterns. With the exception of the most recent trainee, all the other doctors we have interviewed, by chance, seem to believe that, however tired they were, it was better to be a trainee doctor in the past than it is now. But many, including the BMA, would be horrified to go back to the exhaustion of the past.

1950s: Harold Ellis, part time teacher of anatomy at King’s College London, former emeritus professor of surgery, University of London

  • Qualified: 1948, University of Oxford

  • Trained: Oxford, Sheffield, London plus two years in Royal Army Medical Corps

  • Caseload: 20-30 patients

  • Ward rounds: Daily

  • Hours: No set hours. We didn’t count the hours

  • On call: One day a week and one weekend in two or three

  • Time off: When it was quiet. Some Sundays

  • Leave: Two weeks

  • Pay: £2/week

  • Perks: Free accommodation, all meals, laundry, doctors’ mess

Harold Ellis: “I used to see emergency patients in my pyjamas, underneath my white coat.”

We all knew one another and what each was capable of. The firm was like a …

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