The radiology department at Rotorua Hospital is “critically short” of senior doctors, with only three fulltime equivalent positions filled when it is funded for eight.
The hospital’s head of radiology Dr Mark Barnes made the comment as he joined about 25 fellow Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) union members striking outside Rotorua Hospital yesterday.
It came after the union rejected the latest offer from Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand on Friday.
The union is asking for an “inflation-adjusted” pay increase for its members and has disputed Te Whatu Ora’s comment that its “very fair and improved offer” in mediation on Friday had “essentially” met the union’s claim.
The national strike — the union’s first — took place from 12pm to 2pm at public hospitals and other health facilities where senior medical officers work. An estimated 5500 doctors and 100 dentists took part around New Zealand.
Speaking outside the hospital on Arawa St, Barnes told the Rotorua Daily Post the department was “critically short” of senior doctors.
He said the department was funded for eight fulltime equivalent positions, but it had only had three fulltime equivalent doctors for “the last year or so”.
“We don’t have enough senior doctors to run the department effectively and we’re reliant on sending examinations to outside providers. And it puts a huge amount of pressure on the few of us who are left, [with] very long hours [and] long waiting times for reporting examinations.”
Barnes, who walked in the strike holding a sign that read “striking for patient safety”, said the hospital could not attract new people to join the department.
“To attract people to come in, you need to be able to provide an employment package which is appealing and attractive to people from not only this country, but the rest of the world as well.”
In his view: “We can’t do that.”
Barnes said there was an international shortage of radiologists, and he believed New Zealand was unable to compete for them.
“We hope to gain recognition of the problems that we all face in healthcare in this country so that we can make sufficient changes … [to] provide better healthcare for our communities.”
ASMS Lakes co-president and Rotorua Hospital anaesthetist Dr Frances Colquhoun said eight permanent staff had resigned from the department she worked in — anaesthesia and intensive care medicine — in just over two years.
“We look after some of the most critically unwell people in hospital, and you can’t leave those services uncovered. So it basically means our department is doing everything we can to keep our services going.”
Emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, Colquhoun said there was “so much extra work” to clear the backlog of patients.
“Doctors have been working longer hours, working extra shifts, doing everything they can to make sure our patients are safe and to try to get rid of some of those backlogs.
“Unfortunately, I think because of the extra pressures, we’ve also seen quite a lot of people leave the profession.”
She said the strike was “not about doctors getting a pay rise”.
“It’s about doctors not being given a pay cut, which is what we’ve been offered.”
She feared more doctors would leave as a result of Te Whatu Ora’s offer.
“When we lose doctors, the patients that need our care don’t disappear. And for me, that’s why I’m standing out here. We just cannot afford to lose more doctors for the people of this country.”
ASMS member and Rotorua Hospital anaesthetist Dr Andrew Robinson said anaesthetists were doing “a lot more” on-call work, which meant their “work-life balance is disappearing”.
Robinson said he was working one weekend every three to four weeks rather than one weekend every six weeks due to understaffing.
While he was paid overtime for this, “I’d rather have more colleagues”.
“If we have more colleagues, then we’re better rested and we can provide better care for our community.”
Toi Te Ora Public Health medical officer of health Dr Jim Miller attended the strike in Tauranga, saying it was “really important” to show some “solidarity” with senior medical staff in the area.
“I think the pressure on staffing is really quite clear from speaking to colleagues, and being offered a pay settlement that would actually be a pay cut isn’t going to help attract and retain doctors,” he said.
In a Te Whatu Ora media release yesterday, acting national clinical director Dr Nick Baker said it was working to reschedule about 250 planned care procedures and the outpatient appointments deferred across the motu [country] because of the strike.
Baker said emergency departments remained open and “care was maintained” for patients during the strike.
“We appreciate some may have been anxious about the strike and thank them for their understanding.”
He said Te Whatu Ora remained committed to reaching a settlement with the union.
“We are going back to mediated talks with the union [today] with this in mind and won’t comment further on those important discussions.”
If mediation fails again, the union has confirmed a further strike between 10am and 12pm on September 13, as well as a four-hour strike on another date.
The Rotorua Daily Post approached Te Whatu Ora for comment in response to claims from the Rotorua and Tauranga strikes.
Megan Wilson is a health and general news reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post. She has been a journalist since 2021.