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Doctors set to take action

Doctors will join colleagues in an unprecedented nationwide strike tomorrow. The second of a two-part series looks at the causes of the industrial discord.

With the first of three historic strikes by doctors and dentists going ahead across New Zealand tomorrow, senior medical staff at Wairarapa Hospital are said to be overworked and at risk of burnout.

The first of three unprecedented strikes is scheduled for 12 noon to 2 pm tomorrow.

A senior administrator at the Hospital has acknowledged challenges exist, especially with recruitment, and said Te Whatu Ora Wairarapa was working to find solutions.

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists [ASMS] industrial officer for Wairarapa, Greg Lloyd, said problems recruiting and retaining senior doctors at the Hospital meant fewer doctors to treat the community. He said numbers of senior doctors at the facility had dropped over recent years, putting pressure on those remaining.

“As a result, staff are often asked to work longer hours, and this contributes to burnout and job dissatisfaction and makes it increasingly difficult for senior doctors to find time for vitally important things like professional development.

“It is hard for senior doctors to catch a break to recover and rest.”

Kieran McCann, interim lead hospital and health services and operations team, addressed the issues.

“Recruitment continues to be a major challenge for Wairarapa and is a well-known pressure that is not isolated to the district. Te Whatu Ora – Wairarapa has been addressing vacancies by using locums. Many of the locums used are in long-term fixed-term roles within the district, meaning numbers of senior doctors within the district overall have remained relatively stable,” he said.

“A permanent and stable workforce is our preference to reliance on high levels of casual workforce. We know our workforce is under pressure, and addressing this across the health sector is a top priority, with significant work underway in this space.”

Dr Norman Gray is the clinical head of department at Wairarapa ED. He said psychiatry, acute orthopaedic, and radiology services at the Hospital were all seriously impacted by staffing shortages.

“We only have a radiologist on-site two days a week. There is no contemporaneous reporting of X-ray results. Normally X-rays taken in ED are reported on quickly, but here this is not so, increasing the number of missed abnormalities [meaning patients must be re-called],” he said.

Gray said when he started at the Hospital nine years ago, there were 36 specialists, but now there are only about 22.

“Of the 22 remaining specialists, only two or three were trained in New Zealand. It shows how dependent we are on recruiting from overseas.”

He said Australia offered more to specialist doctors than the New Zealand health service did, over and above higher salaries.

“They have higher superannuation – it is about double the New Zealand contribution. Working conditions are the same or better in Australia.”

“The strikes are to draw a line in the sand with Health New Zealand. To say we have reached an endpoint.Specialists get burnt out. The Wairarapa has the greatest percentage of burnout among medical specialists in New Zealand. When people are burnt out, they become disengaged and leave or retire.”

McCann said the issue of senior medical officers undertaking additional workload was being looked at across New Zealand, not just in Wairarapa.

“The number of budgeted doctor positions within Te Whatu Ora Wairarapa has increased, and every effort will be made to fill those vacant positions.

“We continue to focus on recruitment and working as Te Whatu Ora Wairarapa to benefit from recruitment efforts at a national level. Te Whatu Ora values the enormous contribution of doctors and thanks them for their critical role caring for the health needs of our whānau and communities. We value our SMO workforce and acknowledge the ASMS members’ rights to take industrial action,” he said.

Lloyd said Wairarapa senior doctors at the Hospital were owed about 410 hours of annual leave per person, according to research conducted by the organisation. This was almost two years’ worth of entitlement.

He said the strike was needed to send a message that more investment in senior staff was needed.

“Senior doctors have never conducted nationwide strikes before.

“Doctors are concerned if no action is taken, senior doctors will continue to leave, and our regions will continue to have recruitment issues.

“Doctors feel issues they raise about recruitment and retention have been ignored for too long.”

The strikes are designed to be as short as possible, causing as minimal disruption as possible.

“Life-preserving services will be in place. The strike is about sending a message to Te Whatu Ora and political leaders that we need to invest in our doctors, or communities like Wairarapa will find themselves struggling to provide quality medical care to its residents in the future,” Lloyd said.

McCann hoped strike action could be averted, but said contingency planning was underway to ensure safe and appropriate care for patients.

“We will work with ASMS to ensure life-preserving services continue to be provided and to minimise the impact of the strike on other care services.”

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZOnAir


  1. It’s long overdue for NZ to be asking itself some very serious questions about its university provision for training doctors. Two universities offering Medicine simply isn’t enough. Most countries with our population would have four or five. Relying on overseas recruitment of doctors is unsustainable, especially in a competitive market. How can we possibly compete with other countries for overseas doctors, with our fairly low pay and benefits and high cost of living.

    NZ needs to triple its university Medicine places, waive student fees for Medicine, then require students who benefit from free fees to work as doctors in NZ for at least five years after finishing their training. We know the talented students are out there, and terrific A-grade students are not getting university places in Medicine because there aren’t enough places for them.

    The solution is there, for all to see. We can’t bury our heads in the sand any longer. This is an issue that ought to be on all political parties’ manifesto. So ask your MP candidates when your see them in the coming weeks :- what exactly is their party going to do about this grassroots issue?

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