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‘Overworked, underpaid’ junior doctors at Sunshine Hospital launch legal action

The case focuses on claims registrars were not being given the 10 hours of clinical training a fortnight mandated under their medical enterprise agreement.

Under the medical enterprise agreement, registrars at Sunshine Hospital are rostered to work 86 hours per fortnight, 10 of which must be set aside for medical training.

It is understood dozens of registrars at Sunshine Hospital were part of the initial claim to the Fair Work Commission, but many have since left the hospital or dropped their allegations amid fears taking legal action could destroy their careers.

One junior doctor, who was part of initial claim and spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity, described a toxic and intimidating culture in which trainees were pressured to fudge their overtime hours.

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“Not being able to receive critical training is symbolic of a hospital where a workload is out of control and you’re staying back just to make sure patients are safe,” the doctor said. “But they often question why you can’t get everything done in your shift and blame you for it. It makes you feel powerless, embarrassed and frustrated.”

She described instances where registrars were on call for 10 days straight or not given a 10-hour break between shifts, adding it wasn’t uncommon to see junior doctors crying in the residential quarters “because they felt so overstretched, overworked and that they weren’t doing their job well enough”.

“Often you go home after working hours and hours of overtime feeling extremely anxious and there have been times where I have felt so tired I have forgotten to do things,” she said. “Or you wake up at 2am and worry you’ve made a mistake on the medication chart so you’re calling the hospital at 3am to check on patients.”

The doctor said some of her colleagues were medicated for anxiety and depression.

The most recent figures from the Australian Medical Association reveal about 40 per cent of Victorian trainee doctors have experienced discrimination, sexual harassment or bullying. A further 40 per cent said the pressure of the job was taking a toll on their mental health, with many fearing they could make an error due to clinical fatigue.

Most said they felt powerless to complain – three out of five said they feared negative consequences if they reported inappropriate behaviour.

AMA Victorian president Julian Rait said exploitation of young doctors remained rife across the state.

Australian Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait says exploitation of junior doctors is still rife.

Australian Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait says exploitation of junior doctors is still rife.Credit:Justin McManus

Associate Professor Rait said the clinical training was essential because it taught young doctors how to respond to medical situations they would face in the future.

“When hospitals allow young doctors to work longer hours than they should, it creates a situation where they are very fatigued and they are at greater risk of making clinical errors,” he said.

Western Health chief medical officer Dr Paul Eleftheriou said the health service had recently changed work practices to reduce the workload on junior doctors and ensure access to clinical training.

“This includes improved rostered access to training time and the introduction of a new training time guideline following consultation with medical staff, as well as improved processes for claiming overtime hours,” he said.

Dr Eleftheriou stressed that the ongoing Fair Work Commission negotiations with several junior doctors dealt with conditions prior to reforms at the hospital.

The legal action comes alongside another stoush which has seen the AMA take unprecedented legal action against 37 of the state’s 83 public health services over growing concerns hospitals were refusing to pay specialist doctors overtime.

Both workplace disputes comes in the wake of reports some of Melbourne’s major hospitals are facing budget shortfalls of up to $45 million, with fears this could cut patient numbers and services.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, however, has rejected suggestions the state’s hospitals are in severe debt.

“Victorian hospitals have never had this much funding before. We have provided record funding in every single budget since we have been in office,” she said last week.

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