Do doctor strikes increase patient deaths?

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A paper published in the BMJ has concluded that strikes by doctors do not appear to increase patient mortality, although they can disrupt the delivery of healthcare.

In the article, three researchers from the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Harvard Medical School in the USA consider the impact of doctors taking industrial strike action on patient safety.

According to their review of available evidence, doctor strikes have not been found to affect mortality in developed healthcare systems. However, full strikes by all doctors in resource-poor healthcare settings may endanger patient safety.

The authors suggest that the lack of impact on patient deaths in developed countries may be due to the guaranteed provision of emergency care during strike action, at least at the level usually available at weekends, as was apparent in the cases that they examined. In fact, they noted that emergency care may even improve during industrial action because of a number of factors including more senior physicians standing in for those on strike or the cancellation of elective admissions increasing the number of doctors available to treat emergency patients.

The researchers conclude: ‘Some doctors will always feel that industrial action is fundamentally inconsistent with their professional obligations because of its inevitable impact on patients. However, in balancing their competing priorities, doctors in high income countries can be reassured by the consistent evidence that patients do not come to serious harm during industrial action provided that provisions are made for emergency care.’