Thoughts on Doctors Going On Strike

I read Dr. H. Steven Moffic’s two articles in Psychiatric Times about the strike by mental health workers at Northern California Kaiser Permanente (August 16 and 26, 2022). So far, no psychiatrists have joined the strike.

However, this piqued my interest in whether psychiatrists or general physicians have ever gone on strike. I have a distant memory of house staff voicing alarm about a plan by University of Iowa Hospital & Clinics to reduce health care insurance cost support many years ago. It led to a big meeting being called by hospital administration to discuss the issue openly with the residents. The decision was to table the issue at least temporarily.

It’s important to point out that the residents didn’t have to strike. I don’t recall that it ever came up. But I think hospital leadership was impressed by the big crowd of physician trainees asking a lot of pointed questions about why they were not involved in any of the discussions leading to the abrupt announcement that support for defraying the cost of house staff health insurance was about to end.

That’s relatively recent history. But I did find an article on MedPage Today written by Milton Packer, MD (published May 18 2022) about what was called the only successful strike by interns and residents in 1975 in New York. I don’t know if it included psychiatric residents; they weren’t specifically mentioned.

In 1957, the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) in New York City and voted to unionize to improve appalling working conditions. They won the collective bargaining agreement, the first ever to occur in the U.S. because they went on strike, which hamstrung many of the city’s hospitals. Medical faculty had to pitch in to provide patient care.

After 4 days, the hospitals agreed to the residents’ demands. However, the very next year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that residents were classifiable as “students,” not employees, which meant they weren’t eligible to engage in collective bargaining. This led to a reversal of the gains made by the strike.

Residents who are unionized voted to strike at three large hospitals in California in June of this year. They reached a tentative contract deal at that time. The news story didn’t mention whether there were any psychiatrists in the union.

There has never been a union of residents at The University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. I was a medical student and resident and faculty member for 32 years. I saw changes in call schedules and work loads that were the norm for the exhausting schedules that led to horrors like the Libby Zion case in New York.

Even as a faculty member on our Medical-Psychiatry inpatient unit, the workload was often grueling. I co-attended the unit for years and during the months I was scheduled to work there I shared every other night call with an internist for screening admissions. I was sometimes scheduled for several months at a time because it was difficult to find other psychiatrists willing to tackle the job.

If residents had wanted to unionize and voted to strike then, my internist colleague and I probably could have filled in for them.

But I would never have considered going on strike myself. It would have been next to impossible to find any other psychiatrist to fill in for me. And if other psychiatrists had gone on strike? We might have won a better deal—but only by hurting the patients and families who needed us.

I suspect my attitude is what underlies the impressions shared in Robert G. Harmon’s article, “Intern and Resident Organizations in the United States: 1934-1977,” in the 1978 issue of the Milbank Quarterly.

The house-staff choice of unionization as a formal process has disturbed some health professional leaders. One has pointed out that for a house officer to don another hat, that of striking union member, in addition to those of student, teacher, administrator, investigator, physician, and employee, may be a regrettable complexity that will further erode public confidence in physicians (Hunter, 1976). Others have seriously questioned the ethics and morality of physician strikes (Rosner, 1975). -Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly/Health and Society, Vol. 56, No. 4, 1978.

When I graduated from medical school, I believed in the cultural view of the physician as a professional. My first allegiance was to the patient and family. I paid dearly for holding that stance. Sena reminds me of the times my head nearly dropped into my soup when I was post call. And I did struggle with burnout.

But I retired because I thought it was time to do so. I don’t think of it as a permanent strike. I hope things turn out all right.

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