10 Jul 2008

Patients need protection during health strikes, says Commissioner

1:05 pm on 10 July 2008

The Health and Disability Commissioner says patients face the risk of death when there are strikes in the health sector, and he is urging the Government to provide better protection for the public.

The commissioner, Ron Paterson, has released two reports into where Dunedin patients had their care seriously interrupted by a strike by radiographers in 2006.

They highlight inadequacies in the way a 67-year-old woman and a 50-year-old man were treated at Otago District Health Board during the strike.

Mr Paterson says patients are vulnerable at such times, and he is asking the Government to consider what could be done to ensure better protection of patients during strikes.

The Otago District Health Board says it is a matter of time before an error of judgement is made during a strike and someone is harmed.

Health Minister David Cunliffe says arrangements to safeguard patients during health sector strikes have changed over the past two years.

He says if a clinician asks for a service it will be provided without question, and any dispute about whether it was necessary is sorted out after the fact.

Mr Cunliffe says the pendulum has swung more in favour of the clinician and the patient.

He says he will not ban strikes, as that would set a very undesirable precedent across the labour market, but they should be a last resort.

Treatment delays

The report details the case of a 67-year-old woman, who was diagnosed with a cerebral aneurysm in mid 2006.

She received an angiogram appointment 41 days after her initial referral, but the appointment was delayed by a further three weeks because of a strike by radiographers, who carry out the x-rays.

The woman died in her home before she got the appointment, though not as a result of her treatment.

The death certificate said she died as a result of a cerebral haemorrhage caused by the aneurysm. There was no post-mortem and Mr Paterson was told by medical experts and the DHB that her death was not caused by the aneurysm.

Mr Paterson says the woman's neurosurgeon was at fault for not responding urgently enough to her problem.

He also criticised the board over the way it communicated with the patient, and says the time patients have been waiting must be taken into account when hospitals plan how they will cope with a strike.

In the second case a 50-year-old man needed a head scan but it was not considered urgent enough to get one under emergency arrangements for life-preserving services agreed in advance with the union.