A general physician at Whangārei Hospital says today’s strike isn’t about money - it is about remedying staff shortages that have left doctors “exhausted” and “desperate”.
Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) member Kaye Logan is one of around 260 doctors and dentists in Northland striking today.
About 5500 doctors from public hospitals and health facilities where senior medical officers work, along with 100 dentists nationwide, will walk off the job from midday until 2pm after a weekend of failed mediation between Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand and ASMS.
ASMS chief executive Sarah Dalton told NZME this was the first time the union had gone on a nationwide strike.
She said union members wanted pay increases in line with the consumers price index (CPI) and expressed optimism Te Whatu Ora would “think again” in light of the strike action.
But Logan, who has worked at Whangārei Hospital since 2010, said the strike wasn’t about getting more money.
“We just need more doctors. We’re desperate and we’re exhausted.”
She said 18 doctors are supposed to work in Whangārei Hospital’s general medicine department, but there are only 12.
“We can’t continue. That’s [an] absolute skeleton staff. We’re turning up sick because we know that there’s no one else - you have to come, otherwise you’re spread even more thinly.”
And the work never stops, Logan said. Senior physicians are having to pick up the work of junior doctors and pharmacists whose numbers have severely dwindled.
“We just don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere. There’s no hope.”
Logan felt as though they were training junior doctors to “prop up” the Australian health system, where the pay was far more substantial than what New Zealand offered.
“A year-six pay rate in Australia for three days a week with a bit of time off for private is about $440,000. We’re so far behind.”
Te Whatu Ora has claimed senior medical officers - New Zealand’s most experienced and well-trained doctors - have an average total salary of $318,000, including additional payments for shift work and superannuation.
But Logan said the figures “don’t make sense” and were “not realistic” for on-the-ground, day-to-day general physicians.
She said New Zealand doesn’t need to necessarily match salaries, but instead lessen the pay difference so staff would choose to stay.
“The only reason we are still here is for each other, because we can’t lose anymore. None of us want to be doing this anymore like this.”
In terms of patient safety during the strike, Te Whatu Ora interim group director of operation for the Northern Region, Alex Pimm, said life-preserving service rosters had been agreed with the union to ensure patients who need urgent senior doctor input can still receive it during the strike.
“All Te Tai Tokerau hospitals and services have contingency plans in place to manage during the strike. Our emergency department will continue to be open for patients needing hospital care.”
Some planned appointments and surgeries have been deferred, but affected patients were contacted directly, Pimm said. However, people were warned about potential longer waits for some services.
Te Whatu Ora has offered senior doctors and dentists salary increases over the next year of between 7 per cent and 12.9 per cent - an increase of between $15,000 and $26,000.
Te Whatu Ora chief people officer Andrew Slater said they have been clear with the union that they have put all they can on the table.
“To invest more would involve having to make funding reprioritisations elsewhere.”
But Dalton claimed the offer described was not the one put on the table. If it were that level of increase, she said, members would have snapped it up.
“It’s just part of the landscape. It’s a service-based increase - they have built in the value of that increase into what they claim is the value of the settlement,” Dalton said.
Slater confirmed the figures were simply an increase to a 15-point system they already have in place, where the doctors receive a pay increase each year after a pay review.
He also said they have offered an additional top level so those who have already completed 15 years in the industry would be eligible for a pay increase as well.
If mediation fails again after the industrial action, then a further two hour strike is planned for September 13, as well as a four-hour strike on another date.
Pimm advised anyone experiencing a medical emergency during the strike action to still call 111 immediately or go to an emergency department.
Karina Cooper is deputy news director and covers breaking and general news for the Advocate. She also has a special interest in investigations.