An Auckland radiographer says she and her colleagues are distressed by the effect of their strikes on patients, but the action is necessary.

Pamela Aitken, a 29-year-old union delegate and medical radiation technologist at Auckland City Hospital, said yesterday: "We wouldn't be radiographers if we weren't interested in public health and safety. It's a job that attracts people with an empathetic personality.

"To come to a decision to go on strike takes huge emotional effort. We are definitely upset by it."

But the low-level industrial action, which had escalated into strikes against two district health boards and a national walk-out from public hospitals for 24 hours starting next Tuesday, was necessary to ensure working conditions were good enough to attract and retain the workforce.

"It is to protect the profession and make sure we don't have recruitment and retention issues in coming years."

Asked her response to the hundreds of people whose elective surgery is being cancelled because of the strikes, including the parents of 17-month-old Rebecca Jones, who has cerebral palsy and needs operations to ease pain and help her take solid food, Mrs Aitken said: "I definitely have huge empathy for that - I've got two children myself. It's definitely a last resort. We don't take it lightly. That's why, for months, we have been doing low-level action."

The escalation to walk-outs is in retaliation for suspensions of radiographers by Auckland DHBs.

Health board managers have said they could no longer tolerate the disruption of health services by the low-level action.

The effect on hospitals and patients of the strikes will be compounded by walk-outs at Auckland's three health boards by members of the Medical Laboratory Workers Union on September 10 and again on September 13 at the Auckland DHB.

Public hospitals are warning the public to expect delays in emergency rooms around the strike days and urge patients to go to a GP or accident and medical clinic if possible - but to always call 111 in severe or life-threatening situations.

Mrs Aitken said the union - the Association of Professionals and Executive Employees (Apex) - had reduced its pay claims three times.

"It's portrayed as us just being out for more money. That's not the case at all. Most of our claims are about better terms and conditions, better rest breaks, proper allowances."

Apex spokeswoman Bernadette Gourley said, "It's very important the issues are addressed by the DHBs, or we will have the situation where radiographers are leaving the public health service to work privately or overseas, where they will easily be given the conditions we are seeking."

DHBs' spokesman David Meates said agreeing to the unresolved claims would add costs and the health boards' financial circumstances were extremely tight.

THE RATES
Medical radiation technologist pay at public hospitals:

* $46,306 entry base rate for 40-hour week, rising to $63,148 after six years.
* Many work a 35-hour week - scale $40,518 to $55,254.
* Extra payments for shift work, weekends and for being on-call.

THE ISSUES
* No dispute over two pay rises each of 1 per cent in two-year deal dating from last October.
* Union's demands include backdating of first pay rise, days in lieu for members attending professional development courses in their own time, and an increase to a 40-hour week, from 35, at Auckland.