With the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the African continent, resident doctors in Nigerian public hospitals recently suspended a strike in which they were demanding better benefits, including the provision of more protective equipment. Led by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), which represents around 40 percent of doctors in Nigeria, the walkout had exempted those treating coronavirus patients. While public concern over the strike was inevitably widespread and accompanied by fears of an increase in the overall mortality rate in the country, a look back at the history of medical stoppages around the world suggests there should have been little cause for alarm. In reality, not only are patients rarely harmed when their doctors go on strike, there are almost always fewer deaths than when they are working normally.
An article published in the British Medical Journal in June 2000 reported on a doctors’ strike in Israel that had begun in March of that year. Titled ‘Doctors’ strike in Israel may be good for health’, the article described how death rates had fallen considerably across the most of the country after physicians in public hospitals implemented a program of sanctions to protest against the imposition of a new 4-year wage contract. The falls in mortality occurred despite the strike resulting in hundreds of thousands of visits to outpatient clinics being cancelled or postponed, along with tens of thousands of operations. These outcomes mirrored those of a previous walkout that took place in Israel in 1973, where a one-month strike resulted in patient deaths falling by 50 percent.
A recent study published in the BMC Health Services Research journal similarly examines the effects on mortality of strikes by medical workers. Looking at stoppages in Kenya between December 2016 and November 2017, the researchers found a 100-day strike by doctors that “paralyzed” the country’s public health system had resulted in a significant reduction in mortality. During the same period, a 151-day strike by nurses and a 20-day strike by clinical officers saw small declines in fatalities. These results were contrary to mainstream media reports at the time, which almost invariably claimed the strikes had supposedly caused “many deaths.”
In a particularly notable analysis of industrial action by physicians, research published in 2008 by a team led by Dr. Solveig Cunningham of Emory University analyzed five doctors’ strikes that took place between 1976 and 2003. Two of the strikes took place in Israel, with the others taking place in Los Angeles, Spain, and Croatia. The strikes lasted between 9 days and 17 weeks. It was found that in all cases, mortality either stayed the same or significantly declined during the walkouts. Not a single study analyzed in the review found that mortality increased during the weeks of the strikes compared to in other time periods.
A variety of reasons have been proposed as to why it is that less deaths occur when doctors strike. One possibility is that non-essential and elective surgery tends to be cancelled during the period of the walkout, thus reducing the number of patients facing fatality risks from such procedures. While this cannot be dismissed as a contributory cause it is also notable that, in most studies examining doctors’ strikes, the wider dangers of the pharmaceutical approach to medicine are essentially ignored. Evidence clearly suggests this is a serious omission.
So dangerous is the pharmaceutical approach to medicine that orthodox doctors, hospitals and their treatments have been shown in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to be the third leading cause of death in the United States, exceeded only by deaths from heart disease and cancer. The study, published in July 2000, also found that between 4 and 18 percent of patients experience adverse effects in outpatient settings, with 116 million extra physician visits, 77 million extra prescriptions, 17 million emergency department visits, 8 million hospitalizations, 3 million long-term admissions, 199,000 additional deaths, and $77 billion in extra costs.
In another vivid demonstration of the dangers of pharmaceutical medicine, a JAMA study published in 1998 estimated that in 1994 around 2,216,000 hospitalized patients in the United States had suffered a serious adverse drug reaction (ADR) and that 106,000 suffered a fatal ADR.
When cutbacks in the provision of healthcare demonstrably result in fewer patients dying, there is clearly something very wrong with the conventional approach to medicine. If the outcomes when doctors strike teach us anything, therefore, it is surely that there is an urgent need for reform of our healthcare systems. Until such time as this happens and approaches targeting the root causes of diseases are implemented, the Hippocratic Oath – which traditionally required newly trained doctors to swear they will do no harm to their patients – will continue to be routinely violated.