Doctors strike an important blow for the nation’s health

Alexander's picture

American doctors are often excoriated for their greed, and, true enough, many of them may be greedy individually. But, thanks to the BMA, British doctors can be greedy collectively.

This pernicious organisation has been agitating for a doctors’ strike for quite some time. Now it looks as if they’re getting their way: some 79 percent of GPs, 84 percent of hospital consultants and 92 percent of junior doctors have voted in favour of industrial action.

The bone of contention is that the retirement age is about to rise from 65 to 68 for NHS doctors, who feel aggrieved as a result. After all, today’s average hospital consultant retires on a meagre pension of £48,000 a year, plus a miserly lump sum of over £140,000. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, as I’m sure most pensioners in the UK will agree. On the other hand, one is beginning to get the impression that our current medical professionals in no way resemble those disinterested, self-sacrificial doctors inhabiting the pages of AJ Cronin’s novels.

But, if experience is anything to go by, the strike is a dark cloud that’s not without its silver lining. If we’re at all like Belgians, perish the thought, we just may do well out of this latest exercise in institutionalised greed, which is as good a definition of modern unionism as any.

In 1964 Belgian doctors stayed on strike for several months, and doomsday prognoses were selling an awful lot of newspapers all over the world. Yet in fact Belgium’s mortality rate significantly dropped during those months, which vindicates the whole concept of iatrogenic (treatment-induced) disease.

It was Florence Nightingale, she of the Scutari fame, who first showed that some diseases, including fatal ones, are caused by doctors. She thus shone her lantern on the reverse side of the profession, and we owe her a debt of gratitude. But the idea became public property only after the 1976 publication of Limits to Medicine by the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, who subtitled the book Medical Nemesis.  

As was his wont, Illich took Nightingale’s idea and did his usual reductio ad absurdum on it. He claimed that not some, but most diseases were iatrogenic, and he supported this off-the-wall claim with an impressive corpus of statistical data, including the mortality rate during the Belgian strike.

That was going too far, and Illich thereby weakened his case somewhat though, by way of compensation, his book became rather entertaining. But even if Illich was only partially correct, we have little to fear from the one-day strike coming up.

One could perhaps extrapolate the same line of thought to the whole raft of public services, starting with Parliament, and especially the front benches. Though history records nothing like a whole government going on strike, perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. Judging by our government’s record, it’s entirely conceivable that if the honourable (and other) ladies and gentlemen stayed at home for a few months, we’d all stand to benefit.

Surely our government officials must have an axe to grind somewhere? They are, for example, underpaid compared to EU bureaucrats. Nor can they claim anywhere near the same side benefits, perks or, come to that, pensions. As I write this, anger and sympathy are mixing in an equal proportion in my blood stream. How unfair is that? How discriminatory? Very, is the answer.

So come on, Dave, have a go. Are you a man or a mouse? Give us all a break, until Christmas, say. Stand up for your rights and those of your glorious colleagues.

Oh well, he probably won’t. This will go down as yet another pleasure our government will deny us. So much more grateful we must all be to our doctors, who are doing what they can to make our lives better – and possibly longer.