Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk

Medical Residents Announce General Strike

Quebec’s hospitals are facing a 10 per cent reduction in services from their medical residents after the union representing the young doctors held a general assembly to announce a strike, set to begin Sept. 12.

“[Our salaries] are 32 per cent behind the Canadian average,” said Charles Dussault, president of Fédération des médecins résidents du Québec in an interview with The Link. “If we look back 10 years, we were on par with the Canadian average. The gap gets bigger every year, and we’re extremely worried that if the situation keeps getting worse, at some point we will have a hard time recruiting and retaining [medical professionals] in Quebec.”

While the audience of almost 3,000 residents applauded throughout Dussault’s speech and the general consensus seemed in favour of a strike, there were voices of dissent. One resident at the Children’s Hospital pointed out to Dussault that any reduction in services would adversely affect patient care. Dussault acknowledged that patient care could be affected, but that the strike has become necessary, as the residents have gone 18 months without a collective bargaining agreement.

“It’s easy to say we’re taking patients as hostages, but […] that’s the end result,” he said. “The reason we need to put pressure tactics is because this government doesn’t want to negotiate.”

Others objected that staying home would further tax those already overworked residents who were in the hospitals on any given day. As a vital service, the residents must maintain 90 per cent of their usual capacity, but that reduction will put even more stress on a system that already suffers from a lack of personnel and over-capacity hospitals.

“I guess we’ll have to work harder to cover the duties of the people that won’t be there,” said Sean Doherty, a resident at the Jewish General Hospital. Doherty, a Newfoundland native, is among the few residents attracted from out of province. Quebec has had difficulty in recent years bringing in doctors from the rest of the country and internationally, due to the lower pay. While he said he personally opposed the strike, he acknowledged that something would have to be done to change the current shortage of doctors in Quebec.

“Newfoundland used to be the worst paid in the country, but they got a huge raise,” he said. “I knew coming here that I would be [paid less] by about $7,000, but it’s a choice I made knowing that. It’s true that there’s very few of us that chose to come here, and there’s a lot of people from Quebec that chose to leave.”

The inability of Quebec to attract residents from out of the province is one trend that Dussault is convinced the strike will be able to reverse. He cited one statistic that shows Quebec has a net loss of 40 residents per year, which the Quebec medical education system and taxpayers “paid a great deal of money and spent a great deal of time and energy [to train].”

Aside from overworked residents and underserved patients, there is another group that is already suffering because of the current dispute. Since July, the residents have refused to teach medical students who normally follow them on their rounds. The residents receive no extra pay for their time teaching.

“As of now it’s not going to delay graduation,” said Eric Peters, president of the Fédération médicale étudiante du Québec. “[But] we get less exposure, we get less teaching. The staff [doctors] try to compensate, but unfortunately they don’t have as much time, [and] they’re not as accessible, so they’re nowhere near to able to compensate enough to cover for the teaching that the residents do.

“While we can understand the residents’ demands, and most of my students will end up being residents afterwards, I cannot support a teaching strike,” Peters continued. “Our students want to learn and this doesn’t serve us.”

Negotiations are still ongoing between the FMRQ and the provincial government. The strike may be averted if the two sides reach an agreement before Sept. 12. “We profoundly and sincerely hope we can resolve the conflict without a strike,” said Dussault. “But am I optimistic that we will be able to do so? I cannot say I am optimistic at this point.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 32, Issue 01, published August 30, 2011.