Organizers say UWs Resident Wellness Day would be the largest demonstration of its kind among residency programs.
Organizers say UW's "Resident Wellness Day" will be the largest demonstration from a U.S. residency program in the last 20 years. RS

On Friday approximately 300 University of Washington medical residents and fellows will participate in a sick-in strike, partly to raise awareness of resident health issues and partly to protest UW's current "unacceptable" contract proposal.

UW's residents have been working without a contract since July of last year. The University of Washington Housestaff Association (UWHA), which has been negotiating the deal, remains unsatisfied with the university's offers, which union members say would amount to pay cuts and lousy benefit packages. Last September, hundreds of residents called a 15-minute lunch hour strike to highlight UW's lack of child care services, relatively low salaries, and inadequate transportation vouchers.

Dr. Brandon Peplinski, an internal medicine resident and a board member for UWHA, said the size and scope of Friday's demonstration has no recent precedent among the country's medical training programs.

Peplinski said the union has heard stories of similarly sized actions in San Francisco, New York City, but those were full-on strikes and they happened ten or twenty years ago. Moreover, those actions were "so far removed from the current atmosphere of the training process, which fosters a culture of not standing up for yourself," he said.

Residents account for 20% of the providers in King County. To ensure scheduling issues didn't interrupt patient care, Peplinski said participants gave their respective program directors at least six weeks notice.

Several program directors didn't respond to questions about whether they condone the mass sick day, but 22 of them signed a letter of support for the residents. "We are proud of our trainees and support them in their self-advocacy for benefits that will contribute to and improve their well-being," they wrote.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the university offered a general commitment to foster "an environment that supports the wellbeing of our residents and fellows," and added that they "don’t anticipate any disruption in care to our patients" as a result of the large number of absences.

However, UW only counts "approximately 159 residents, fellows and dental students" who requested time off. Peplinski maintains his 300 number, saying the administration's number could be low for any number of reasons, but guesses that they surveyed the school's medical programs before [UWHA] got to 300 pledges.

Many residents plan to use the "wellness day," as they're calling it, to see their own doctors, dentists, and optometrists. Making such appointments can be especially difficult given UW residents' shortage of vacation time, lack of consecutive days off during the week, and grueling work hours.

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"At UW, people neglect their own wellness and their own healthcare to do this job," Peplinski said. Resident physicians—who already suffer from high levels of burnout, depression, and exhaustion—sometimes work with a fever or other illnesses for fear of retaliation from program directors, Peplinski added. He's heard of UW residents powering through ailments to avoid nasty emails from supervisors, getting accused of being weak and unable to keep up with the work, or being scheduled to work a make-up day, which would be illegal.

"Just the fact that the fear is there says a lot. Their own supervisors clearly aren't sending the message they can take a sick day when they’re sick," Peplinski added.

When doctors don't take care of themselves, they have a harder time taking care of patients. "When you have a doctor who’s burnt out, who doesn’t have the bandwidth to connect with you and your family, they’re not going to give you the care you deserve," Peplinski said.