The cinematic portrayal of the junior doctor in movies and television programmes is familiar to many of us. The demanding, yet often lavish lifestyles these fictional characters very usually lead convinces audiences that having such an eminent role in the medical field, and the hard work and dedication that regularly precedes this position, is almost always ‘worth it’.
The first act of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, for example, sees the film’s protagonist, Dr. Stephen Strange, casually performing very serious and incredibly difficult brain surgery, all whilst attempting to guess the name of the songs played for him by another doctor in the room. We then follow Dr. Strange home to his luxurious New York apartment, and are invited to observe his vast and expensive watch collection, as well as the assortment of awards packed into his neatly furnished cabinet.
This doctoral archetype however, very rarely accurately reflects the hard work and daily trauma that often comes with working in the medical field.
This article will explore the role and responsibility of the junior doctor in the modern day, thinking deeply about the stresses and pressures that our younger medical practitioners will have to navigate before they can establish themselves properly in this field.
It will juxtapose the cinematic portrayal of the doctor with the very real and lived experiences of medical professionals, hoping to deconstruct this prevailing cinematic and social narrative which regularly neglects the serious daily strain, often with very minimal emotional and financial reward, that our junior doctors must endure.
It will conclude by asking what can be done to establish a more nourishing and enjoyable experience for our junior doctors, a process which will ultimately progress overall satisfaction within the profession, and help to more effectively and convincingly encourage aspiring medical students to seriously consider pursuing this career.
The Role of the Junior Doctor
We must begin by acknowledging the one cinematic exception that most accurately reflects the plight of the junior doctor in the United Kingdom. Of course, television programmes are very likely to exaggerate certain moments or conversations for the sake of entertainment value, a cinematic tendency which this show does also subscribe to, however This is Going to Hurt, airing on the BBC in 2022 and starring Ben Whishaw, expertly balances the difficulties and realities of life on the ward with entertainment value.
The medical profession, perhaps more than any other, is renowned for its excruciatingly long working days. Junior doctors regularly work 10-12 hour days, often longer, working on a zero-hour-contract which directly removes any financial incentive that may come with working such long and arduous days. The transition into the doctoral setting even after the difficulty of successfully navigating the learned content at University is a remarkable first step into the world of work, a ‘test of fortitude and resolve’, and a ‘wilderness experience’.
The personal lives of junior doctors are seemingly superseded by the heavy demands of their working routine, with the long ours often disrupting social and romantic relationships, as well as travel plans and family events.
These difficulties manifest themselves very evidently in This is Going to Hurt, firstly with Ben Whishaw’s character, Adam Kay, waking up in his car before a shift, clearly exhausted from the night before; and secondly, later in the same episode, where a friend of Adam’s, and presumably the groom-to-be at an upcoming wedding where Adam is set to be best man, expresses his disappointment that Adam has been unable to attend another meeting between them.
The demanding schedule Adam is forced to work is clearly beginning to have very real implications on his personal relationships, further compounding the stresses and emotional exhaustion that life as a junior or even more experienced doctor would bring.
The Responsibility of the Junior Doctor
Junior doctors are also very quickly thrust into a position of great responsibility, going from studying for upcoming examinations in the library, to having some degree of control over the lives and experiences of real-world patients, with sometimes very serious problems and queries.
Marvel’s Doctor Strange provides us with a character who is unafraid of, and even invites, the pressures and responsibilities that come with being a world-renowned brain surgeon. Although this may say more for Marvel’s attempts at characterisation than any regard for an accurate portrayal of the medical profession, it is important to note that this is one of a number of examples that insufficiently display the anxiety and apprehension these newly acquired responsibilities can bring.
But what can be done about these clear and obvious issues affecting our young doctors, both at home and internationally as well?
What Can Be Done?
The subject of the long and arduous working patters for junior doctors is a naturally difficult one to effectively navigate. It would be difficult to reduce the hourly shifts of the doctors working on the front lines at the moment, because, despite already being stretched incredibly thin, their work covers for the 24 hour service that hospitals and emergency centres must offer, to ensure complete care for their patients.
What can be done, however, is that governments can work to incentivise the medical profession in a more effective way, by raising salaries, and offering more comprehensive mental and emotional support for working doctors. This would naturally drive the number of qualified doctors up, meaning that there would be more staff available to provide the 24 hour attention that most hospitals demand.
A greater number of staff to cover demanding shifts would allow junior doctors to build and cultivate a healthier work-life balance, and maintain their personal relationships and commitments whilst also devoting a significant amount of their time to their doctoral work. This is likely to help junior doctors to feel satisfied with their jobs, overall reducing their levels of anxiety and tiredness.
Some minor steps have already been taken in preparing junior doctors for the responsibilities they will assume on the ward, with a number of smaller teams and support groups having been implemented to ease the transitional period from University student to junior doctor.
This support network, however, must be developed further, if it is to effectively combat the stress and apprehension junior doctors experience undertaking this serious and potentially life-changing responsibility, for both them and their patients. The learned content needs to be more effectively intertwined with the practical experience of working on the ward, as a practical role brings its own social and conversational challenges that can not be easily taught through standard course content.
For more of our content on health and growth, check out another one of our articles on the ‘Self-Love / Fully-Healed’ paradox here!
- Sturman, Nancy, Tan, Zachary, and Turner, Jane, ‘“A Steep Learning Curve”: Junior Doctor Perspectives on the Transition from Medical Student to the Healthcare Workplace’, in BMC Medical Education, Vol. 17, No. 92 (2017).