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In need of a new remedy

Today’s senior doctor strike at Wairarapa Hospital and across New Zealand is concerning on many levels.

For the first time ever, senior doctors in this country are going on strike. To be clear, that’s the first time in history. The people who we expect always to be there will not be there. The person in the ED who helps people in serious need has downed tools. Likewise, the dentists, surgeons and all the others we rely on so heavily. Today, it’s a two-hour strike. But it’s the first two hours of a series of three strikes. The next two might be longer if Te Whatu Ora and the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists [ASMS] don’t reach an agreement.

That’s another new piece of information for many – senior doctors have [and therefore believe they need] their own organisation to speak for them.

This situation speaks volumes about what we value as a society. This year, doctors and nurses as well as teachers have all downed tools in protest at their pay and conditions. Doctors and nurses say their profession is at risk of a long-term decline in numbers as offshore attrition fails to keep up with new graduates and offshore recruitment. One nurse recently compared it to a sieve, with more water falling out the bottom than is being poured in at the top.

The strikes also send a message to would-be new entrants to the healthcare workforce. Why would they choose a lengthy training course that will ultimately be rewarded with a massive student loan, long hours, and possibly burnout? The best and brightest will probably look elsewhere. They could do anything – why would they choose a career that is exhausting, expensive, and appears increasingly thankless?

At the same time, the current strike must send a small chill through many close to home in Wairarapa. Increasingly, the region is a retirement option of choice for Wellingtonians and others from further afield. The new retirement village in Greytown shows how popular the region is for this purpose. In addition to large communities of retired people in Masterton, many others have elderly relatives here. The comments from Dr Norman Gray in Saturday’s Times-Age are a real cause for concern. If someone breaks their hip in Wairarapa, they will be sent to Wellington because there are no acute orthopaedic specialists here. We have an ageing population but no acute orthopaedic specialist. Let the consequences of that scenario sink in.

We hear that Australia is now the option of choice for not only doctors but nurses, too. There is something resembling a small army of skilled professionals in their 20s and 30s regularly taking a plane across the ditch in search of better opportunities, lower-cost living and higher salaries. In the area of human resources, our closest neighbour is also our biggest competitor for talent.

Te Whatu Ora says it has a good pay offer on the table. If it is true that the lowest starting salary for senior doctors in Australia is higher than the highest salary they can get in Wairarapa, then something is seriously, and worryingly, wrong. It needs to be fixed before our healthcare system becomes terminally ill.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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