Eastern Health and Royal Women’s Hospital are the latest Victorian health services to face a class action amid claims of understaffing, meaning junior doctors are underpaid with a consequent risk to patient health.
Over 80 junior doctors working in Eastern Health and Royal Women’s Hospital have registered interest in being part of the class action that was filed in the Federal Court late last week.
The claim follows court actions commenced over the past nine months against Peninsula Health, Monash Health and Latrobe Regional Hospital, and more recently, against Western Health.
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 each week, most of it unpaid.
The doctor, who does not wish to be identified for what they described as a fear of retribution, said the natural impact of excessive hours is that junior doctors are 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,” she said.
In a major survey last year of junior doctors’ working conditions undertaken by the Victorian AMA, 46 per cent of junior doctors working in Eastern Health and who responded to the survey reported having made clinical errors due to excessive workloads or understaffing.
Eastern Health operates Angliss Hospital, Box Hill Hospital and Maroondah Hospital. 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.
President of the junior doctors’ union, ASMOF Victoria and President of AMA Victoria, Dr Roderick McRae, said junior doctors working in public hospitals are often working excessive hours, putting both their patients and themselves at risk, now exacerbated by managing very ill COVID-19 patients.
“And on top of this many are not being paid for the work they are doing.
“We are taking legal action as a last resort. Our frontline workers understand the meaning of pressure better than most at present”.
“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,” said Dr McRae.
More than 1,300 Victorian junior doctors have joined the state-wide legal campaign demanding repayment for un-rostered 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 several junior doctors, together with the doctors' union, ASMOF Victoria.
Hayden Stephens said the Victorian action involves at least 15,000 junior doctors who, it will be claimed, are entitled to be paid for the unpaid overtime they worked over the past six years.
“This is not limited to one hospital or a single region. Dangerous hours and underpayment of junior doctors is widespread and systemic, with Victoria clearly no exception,” said Mr Stephens, whose firm also acts for junior doctors in NSW who are pursuing a similar class action.
“Doctors should register their interest at either the AMA Victoria website or at Gordon Legal. We understand doctors concern around fear for their careers. We therefore can assure doctors it’s 100% confidential.”
Mr Stephens said investigations into class actions against several more major Victorian health services are well underway and expect to be initiated over the coming months.