Senior doctors and dentists in Timaru District to join historic strike

Striking senior doctors and dentists are reasonable people with a high commitment to their work, and the care of their patients, which is why choosing to take strike action has not been taken lightly, a South Canterbury union representative says.

Speaking in his position as the branch president of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS), anaesthetist Peter Doran said there had been a great reluctance by members to take strike action, but it had to be done to address the “frustrating’’ issues of specialist shortages, and being expected to work harder as a result.

“This is not being done lightly,’’ Doran said.

On Tuesday, in a historic move, ASMS members will walk off the job for two hours, from noon, with about 60 expected to strike in South Canterbury, Doran said. It marks the first time senior doctors have walked off the job nationwide, after wage negotiations failed.

Doctors are asking for an inflation-related increase of between 7 and 8%, and Doran said this was reasonable given the pressure senior doctors had been under.

“The offers we’ve had from Te Whatu Ora haven’t come anywhere near that [inflation].

The union has about 5500 members, 82% of which voted in favour of three rounds strike action in September.

Sungmi Kim/Stuff

The union has about 5500 members, 82% of which voted in favour of three rounds strike action in September.

“This is in context of the shortage of specialists in all areas. We’re being asked to work harder with these shortages and not being offered an increase consistent with inflation. It’s very frustrating.’’

He said “the heart of the issue’’ was about attracting people to fill vacancies to take pressures off those medical specialists.

“We are well paid and no-one is going to have trouble putting food on the table. Individually we will be OK.

“The filling of the vacancies is the thing we care the most about.’’

He said recruitment was tough – New Zealand trained a lot of specialists but about 40 to 45% left the country and never come back.

“In addition to trying to keep the trained staff we have, we have to attract staff from overseas.’’

Covid-19 had added pressure with medical professionals working harder and longer, and some were “pretty tired’’ or burnt out.

“A lot of what happened with Covid made it worse.’’

Doran said in South Canterbury there were vacancies at Timaru Hospital’s emergency department.

“They have for many months, for years, relied on locums – people from elsewhere in the country, or the world.’’

STUFF

PM Chris Hipkins responds to questions about senior doctors voting to strike next month, saying he hopes doctors will be able to get back around the table with Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand.

He said as many of these professionals were not qualified to the same degree as local specialists, those specialists that were left were required to aid those locums.

“In the past two months there haven’t even been any locums available.

“Our local ED [emergency department] specialists have been doing extra shifts and working at low staffing levels.’’

He said the plan was to have three specialists in the emergency department – at the moment there were only two.

“And there are more patients to see, who are waiting longer.’’

Another example he gave was of the shortage of psychiatrists – with Timaru’s Kensington Centre only becoming fully staffed a few months ago.

“There have been vacancies for the past 17 years at Kensington.’’

The centre provides public and acute psychological care and alcohol and other drugs care.

ROB KITCHIN/STUFF

The Government has outlined “six action areas” to boost the number of nurses and doctors amid an ongoing worker shortage.

Doran said it was a self-perpetuating issue. “If you’re training in psychology in New Zealand, you see how stressed other people are.”

That could deter those training from continuing in that career, he said.

“Psychiatrists have been in very short supply throughout the country – it’s possible we’re the only hospital fully staffed in the country.’’

He said staff shortages in older people’s care was also a big issue.

“It isn’t a failing health system yet, but it’s certainly at risk, right throughout.’’

The issue with retaining staff, and recruiting them from overseas, was not made any easier by the stark contrast in salaries, he said.

The highest salary for a specialist in New Zealand was below the lowest salary step in every state of Australia, he said.

“There’s a 30% to 50% salary difference across the board.

“That can’t be corrected in one year, but it needs to be addressed.’’

South Canterbury branch president of Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Peter Doran says recruitment of medical staff is an issue putting huge pressure on senior doctors and dentists throughout New Zealand.

JOHN BISSET/Stuff

South Canterbury branch president of Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Peter Doran says recruitment of medical staff is an issue putting huge pressure on senior doctors and dentists throughout New Zealand.

If the issue was not resolved, further strike action would take place throughout the country on September 13 from 10am to noon, then on September 21 from 10am-2pm.

In a statement, Te Whatu Ora chief people officer Andrew Slater said it was frustrated and extremely disappointed that ASMS is “refusing to take our latest offer for settlement to their members for consideration, following unsuccessful mediated discussions over the past week’’.

Te Whatu Ora and ASMS had met in mediation three times, he said.

“Each time Te Whatu Ora has revised its offer to reach a settlement, including a very fair and improved offer made on Friday [September 1], which essentially meets the union’s claim,’’ he said.

“This included agreeing to bring the date of pay increases forward on what was in the earlier offer, requiring an investment of a further $16 million. The cost of the revised settlement presented on Friday is significantly above the original parameter for this bargaining.

“The improved offer made in mediation would give senior doctors and dentists salary increases over the next year of between 7% and 12.9%. This amounts to an increase of between $15,000 and $26,000.’’

He said Te Whatu Ora shared doctors’ concerns about attracting and retaining doctors into the public health system and had made a significant commitment to review terms and conditions across the senior medical workforce.

“And to start to remove the remuneration inconsistencies that have been generated through 20 DHBs operating as independent employers.’’

It would take time to grow its medical workforce, he said.

Strike Information for Patients

  • Patients who have an outpatient appointment or surgery booked on the day of the strikes should attend as planned unless they have been contacted to reschedule their appointment.
  • Emergency departments will remain open, and plans are in place to ensure safe care in hospitals.
  • People should continue to call 111 or come to an emergency department if they are experiencing a medical emergency.
  • There is an agreement with the union for senior doctors to attend any life or limb-threatening emergencies during the strike period if required.

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