Young doctors who have joined class actions against the Victorian public hospital system claim excessive workloads are putting patients’ lives at risk.
Dozens of junior doctors have joined two major class actions against Victorian public hospital services over claims they are overworked and underpaid.
More than 80 junior doctors working at Eastern Health and the Royal Women’s Hospital joined class actions filed against the health service and the hospital in the Federal Court last week.
Similar legal action has previously been launched against Peninsula Health, Monash Health, Latrobe Regional Hospital and Western Health.
In a major survey last year of junior doctors’ working conditions undertaken by the Victorian AMA, 46 per cent of Eastern Health doctors reported making clinical errors due to excessive workloads or understaffing.
In the same survey, 42 per cent of junior doctors at Royal Women’s reported having made a clinical error due to fatigue in 2020.
Eastern Health operates Angliss Hospital, Box Hill Hospital and Maroondah Hospital.
A 30-year-old junior doctor who has worked in the emergency department at Box Hill Hospital and on the general surgery ward at Maroondah Hospital said junior doctors sometimes worked up to 25 extra hours of overtime a week, most of it unpaid.
The doctor, who doesn’t wish to be identified for fear of retribution, said the natural impact of excessive hours was that junior doctors were constantly fatigued and sleep-deprived.
“We’re talking about prescribing medications, keeping accurate records and performing procedures where precision and accuracy matters. Getting it wrong can have horrific consequences for patients,” she said.
“It’s no wonder our profession has higher incidences of mental health problems and suicide.
“And the tragedy of it all is that we don’t speak out about these issues in fear our careers will be at risk.”
AMA Victoria president Roderick McRae said junior doctors working in public hospitals often worked excessive hours, putting both patients and themselves at risk.
“We are taking legal action as a last resort. Our frontline workers understand the meaning of pressure better than most at present,” Dr McRae said.
“All we’re asking is for what’s fair. The Victorian government could fix this problem with the stroke of a pen. I call upon Health Minister Martin Foley to lead the way and to implement changes that bring fair working conditions for junior doctors,” Dr McRae said.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Tuesday refused to comment on the legal action before the courts.
“I have worked with and always revered the work of everyone who works in hospitals, they do an amazing job,” he said.
“I know and understand how hard their work is and I say thank you to every one of them.
“We’ve asked a lot of them this year and last year, and we ask a lot of them every single day and they keep on delivering.”
More than 1300 Victorian junior doctors across multiple healthcare services have joined the statewide legal campaign demanding repayment for unrostered overtime as well as penalties against the hospitals for alleged breaches of the Fair Work Act.
The class actions, which are being run by Gordon Legal and law firm Hayden Stephens and Associates, have been launched by junior doctors and ASMOF Victoria, the doctors’ union.
Hayden Stephens said the workers were entitled to be paid for unpaid overtime.
“This is not limited to one hospital or a single region,” he said.
“Dangerous hours and underpayment of junior doctors is widespread and systemic, with Victoria clearly no exception.”
In a statement, an Eastern Health spokesperson said they would not comment on any cases before the court.
The spokesperson said the health service was working to actively address any workplace concerns that were raised.
“Eastern Health has a highly talented and valuable group of junior doctors,” the spokesperson said.
“They, like all of our health professionals, have contributed a great deal in our response to the challenging circumstances we’re currently in.”