Will Medical Residents Unionizing Also Improve Outcomes for Patients?

Being sick or injured is an intimidating experience, and placing your life in the hands of doctors is not only scary, it can be dangerous. Medical doctors in specialty training (residents) routinely work 80-hour weeks. Now, there are efforts to unionize these residents to improve working conditions. Will it lead to better patient outcomes, as well?

As a medical malpractice attorney, I see troubling errors by doctors who move too quickly and don’t read the patient’s chart carefully (or at all) or who are spread too thin and don’t take the time to truly listen to their patients… or to collaborate with another doctor on the case, instead just writing a referral to have someone else solve the problem and move on. And the patients pay the price.

Lisa Schencker’s June 5 article about the increase in residents forming unions can be a positive sign for patients in Chicago and nationwide, if doctors are less stressed and reduce physically demanding schedules.

Critically, resident doctors are still learning. They are an extremely important part of the patient care ecosystem at hospitals. Residents – with an attending physician’s “oversight” – provide hands-on care while working 24-hour schedules, 80-hour weeks. Allowing them to collaboratively negotiate working conditions, hours, leave and childcare and ensure their needs are better met can help them be more present in caring for others. The antiquated system of overworking residents needs an overhaul. Think of the impact this can have on everything from the quality of care in an E.R. to the outcomes of delicate and life-saving surgeries. This is critical: medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to National Institutes of Health data.

The American Medical Association predicts a dangerous shortage of up to 124,000 physicians in the United States by 2034, which will further strain doctors’ working conditions. This will make the protections and negotiating power of unions for residents even more important.

Unionizing is a chance to improve working conditions for young doctors and the medical care of millions of patients under the care of overworked residents. It is important to allow residents to advocate for themselves and modernize the businesses of medicine to protect the well-being of doctors so they can be well enough to care for the rest of us in our time of need.



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