9 Apr 2019

Junior doctors' possible five-day strike raises concerns for patients

5:35 am on 9 April 2019

A prominent senior doctor says he's worried about patient safety as junior doctors vote for yet another strike.

Junior doctors striking outside Wellington Hospital today.

Junior doctors outside Wellington Hospital during their strike in January. Photo: RNZ / Karen Brown

The doctors' union and district health boards are at an impasse in their row over the doctors' now-expired employment deal.

The multi-employer pay deal between the doctors and DHBs expired in late February, but the dispute between them is far from over.

Junior doctors cancelled a strike planned for 15-18 April over technical problems but are voting on a five-day strike starting from 29 April.

Surgeon Andrew Connolly, the independent arbiter who ensures sufficient staff including senior doctors (SMOs) are on duty during strikes to provide vital life-preserving services, said in that role he had seen the pressures on senior doctors and the system generally.

"Increasingly SMOs are unable to fill all the roles that are required to provide for patient safety during a strike, so I do have considerable concern about the impact of a five-day strike on patients, particularly as of course we have a two-day weekend preceding and a two-day weekend following a Monday to Friday strike," he said.

He worried about patients in the hospital, and about the effect of cancelling elective or non-urgent procedures for others.

"If you consider a patient who may need a major operation, particularly for cancer, if they have their surgery cancelled that is an enormous strain on them. Of course, a five-day strike gives no flexibility during that week to rejig things on the elective front."

Mr Connolly said he was aware some DHBs cancelled major surgeries ahead of the strike that had been planned for next week.

He said Middlemore Hospital, where he is head of surgery, planned to continue cancer surgery but not do any joint replacements in that period.

"Because of the need to have as safe a set of plans in place as possible, quite a bit of elective activity was going to stop, probably by the Thursday preceding the strike [11 April] to allow us to discharge as many elective patients as possible when the strike began."

Chief medical officer at MidCentral DHB, Ken Clark, said they were now trying to reschedule hundreds of procedures and appointments that were cancelled in anticipation of the abandoned strike.

"The impact on elective services has been very major and will continue to be so if there is more action. It's not only the days of the action, it's the days leading up to the action and following," Dr Clark said.

David Munro, senior advocate for the junior doctors union, the Resident Doctors Association, said they're increasingly angry about the lengthy row.

"Is it fair to be more than 12 months down the track for bargaining and still not seeing the sort of position from the DHBs that's going to get us closer to settlement?

"We've got to settle this agreement at some stage. It's the DHBs that have got to move their position."

DHBs' spokesman Peter Bramley rejected that, saying the union was given a good offer but turned it down.

"It addresses the issues of concern around safe rosters but also enables us from a DHB perspective to ensure that we've got that flexibility at the local level [that] we've been looking for all the way along."

Both sides are waiting to hear this week whether the Employment Relations Authority will back urgent facilitation.

Doctors expect to know later this week if they'll call the five-day strike.

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