Hospitals prepare as fourth strike looms

By Errol Kiong

The country's hospitals are today scrambling to finalise emergency plans after last-ditch talks to prevent a seven-day strike by medical laboratory workers collapsed.

Private and public hospitals have cancelled virtually all scheduled surgeries, because blood work and transfusions will be unavailable when 1200 lab scientists, including Blood Service workers, walk off the job from 8am tomorrow.

Health insiders say the strike will be even more disruptive than the junior doctors' national strike in August, which led to the postponement of elective surgery and outpatient appointments for 17,000 patients.

This will be the fourth group striking this year, and the third to affect Auckland hospitals.

Auckland City Hospital's laboratory, LabPlus, and the Blood Service have already begun reducing their services to build up reserves for the provision of life-preserving services.

"Hospitals are like a very large ship, they take a lot of work to slow them down and just as much energy to get them back up and fully operational," said operations manager Ngaire Buchanan.

Contingency plans were well under way, said Mrs Buchanan.

Waitakere and North Shore hospitals were advising that most elective surgery and outpatient procedures would be postponed, although acute and urgent cover would be provided.

Contingency plans were also under way in Tauranga and Whakatane Hospitals to cope with all 17 Whakatane-based lab staff striking.

But lab services at Tauranga Hospital are not expected to be affected, as its lab services are handled by Medlab, whose workers are not involved in the strike. All non-urgent testing for Whakatane patients will be undertaken at Tauranga during the strike.

Freelance journalist Suzanne McFadden is among thousands whose planned surgery will not go ahead. She was told on Friday that her surgery at Southern Cross hospital on North Shore has been delayed a week to December 12.

It put her in an awkward position, she said. Her surgery requires a stay for up to 10 days, putting her in hospital until December 22, when the hospital shuts for Christmas.

After two days of mediated talks, the gulf between the lab workers and their employers remain as wide as before.

The Medical Laboratory Workers Union is seeking a 5 per cent pay rise for its members.

"The salaries for our members remains woefully inadequate with starting salaries for scientists with a four and a half-year degree at $40,000, mortuary technicians $36,600 and other laboratory technicians $26,600," said national president Stewart Smith.

Gordon Davies, DHB spokesman and chief executive of Canterbury District Health Board, said the DHBs simply cannot meet their claim.

National Party health spokesman Tony Ryall called for Health Minister Pete Hodgson to step in.

"The hospital system is descending into utter chaos and Mr Hodgson is doing nothing. What's clear from other strikes this year is that this 7-day strike is not going to be the last, and even more patient disruption is likely."

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