As senior Wairarapa Hospital doctors prepare to join an unprecedented nationwide strike, SUE TEODORO looks at the reasons why in the first of a two-part series.
As last-minute talks failed to reach an agreement late yesterday afternoon, senior doctors at Wairarapa Hospital are set to join their colleagues across New Zealand in unprecedented strike action next week.
With negotiations between Te Whatu Ora and the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists [ASMS] remaining inconclusive yesterday, the first of several planned strikes of senior doctors and dentists employed by the health service is set to go ahead for two hours on Tuesday, between 12 pm and 2 pm.
Three planned strikes have been timed to disrupt patients as little as possible and are planned for two to four hours on September 5, 13 and 21.
Wairarapa Hospital ED clinical head of department Norman Gray said the decision to strike was informed by several factors. The number of permanently employed senior doctors at the Hospital has dropped over the years, leading to increased pressure and the risk of burnout for those remaining. Additionally, New Zealand’s pay and conditions are not competitive with other countries, causing doctors to head offshore and the health service to decline.
Kieran McCann, Wairarapa interim lead hospital and health services and operations team, acknowledged recruitment is a challenge. He said Te Whatu Ora is putting significant effort into addressing vacancies and doctors’ workload. The problems are evident across New Zealand and not limited to Wairarapa. McCann said while efforts to avert strike action were underway, contingency plans are in place to keep patients safe if the strikes proceed.
Gray said since he started at the hospital nine years ago, he has seen the number of specialists slowly drop from 36 to about 22 currently. The areas worst impacted are psychiatry and the acute orthopaedic service.
“There were four, now there is no acute orthopaedic service. If you break your hip now, you will get transferred to Wellington.
“Pretty much all other services rely on locums filling in gaps. In the ED, 60 per cent of shifts done by doctors are done by locum doctors,” he said.
Gray said Australia offers better pay and other benefits for doctors, and even other places in New Zealand offer more than Wairarapa. He estimates about a third of New Zealand medical graduates currently end up in Australia.
“Our highest salary in Wairarapa is lower than the starting salaries in any state in Australia.”
He said the strikes are to draw a line in the sand with Te Whatu Ora.
“It is to say we’ve reached an endpoint. It’s about the future. We can see our health system declining.”
McCann acknowledges there are pressures which are felt in many places across New Zealand, not only in Wairarapa. He said Te Whatu Ora is working hard nationally and in the region to address the problems. If strike action goes ahead, plans are in place to keep patients safe and ensure the community can access the services it needs.
“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,” he said.
With many locums in long-term roles, he said the number of senior doctors overall has remained relatively stable. In addition, the number of budgeted doctor positions in Wairarapa has increased.
“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.”
McCann said Te Whatu Ora values its senior medical officers [SMO] and acknowledges ASMS members’ right to take industrial action. He said last year SMOs had accepted a settlement including $6000 on all pay scales, and a $6000 lump sum.
“The current offer would, by April 1, 2024, see all our senior doctors receive a further pay increase of between $15,000 to $26,000, in addition to a further lump sum payment of around $4000.”
McCann said the health service will continue to work with ASMS on settlement in an effort to avert the strike.
“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.”
He said advance information will be given to impacted patients and the public in relation to affected services.
A statement from the ASMS said the unprecedented action is due to Te Whatu Ora wanting doctors to take a real-value pay cut for the third consecutive year. More than 80 per cent of members voted to strike, to say enough was enough.
ASMS executive director Sarah Dalton said the claims made were a minimum.
“Te Whatu Ora will not even pay senior doctors and dentists the bare minimum to ensure their staff do not take a real-term pay cut for the third year in a row,” she said.
“Every employee in New Zealand deserves to have the value of their income maintained.”
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZOnAir