Strike action by junior doctors on 1 December will go ahead after the BMA warned it would not back down unless the government dropped a threat to impose contract changes.
Junior doctors will provide emergency care only tomorrow, followed by two full walkouts from 8am to 5pm on 8 December and 16 December. Other consultants will be on hand to provide emergency and routine care on these dates.
GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said GP practices should be able to continue providing care at usual capacity throughout the strikes, as appointments conduced by trainees are usually observed by full-time GPs in any case.
‘Essentially, GP trainees are supernumerary and GP practices should already have the ability to manage their workload without trainees,’ he told GPonline.
Junior doctor strike support
‘I think the message we’re getting from GPs is that they are overwhelmingly behind their junior doctor and GP trainee colleagues, and so would want to support then as much as they are able to.
‘As far as patients are concerned, I don’t think they should be unduly worried about accessing their GP service. They should still get the same level of care from their GP on the days of action.’
Despite the added strain on hospitals, patient safety is paramount, and GPs should also continue to refer urgent cases on to secondary care, he added.
‘Practices will obviously be mindful of the pressures hospitals will be under, but clearly if a patient needs to be referred urgently, then even on strike days hospitals should be geared up to deal with those urgent cases.’
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt and others opposing strikes have warned that it will be ‘difficult to avoid harm to patients’ should the strikes go ahead. He added that the action would ‘at best disrupt care and at worst cause serious harm to patients'.
But analysis of previous doctor strikes in developed countries over the past half a century suggests that this month’s action is unlikely to have a severe impact on patients’ survival.
A timely US study led by Harvard researchers, published in BMJ last week, found that patient deaths do not increase during doctor strikes as long as provision is made for emergency care – which will be the case in the upcoming strikes, including the full walkouts.
They found that death rates consistently remained the same or even decreased during days of industrial action with emergency care. The reasons for this are unclear, although the researchers hypothesise this could be due to having more senior doctors filling in, doctors being better rested during strike periods or the cancellation of non-urgent surgeries.
The researchers warned that it would be 'naive' to expect no impact at all on patient welfare because many patients scheduled for routine or non-emergency appointments face having their treatment delayed or having their doctors drafted in to treat emergency patients.
In conclusion, they wrote: ‘Some doctors will always feel that industrial action is fundamentally inconsistent with their professional obligations because of its inevitable impact on patients.
‘However, in balancing their competing priorities, doctors in high income countries can be reassured by the consistent evidence that patients do not come to serious harm during industrial action provided that provisions are made for emergency care.’