18 Oct 2016

'The issue isn't about us. It’s about patient safety'

12:25 pm on 18 October 2016

Thousands of junior doctors across the country have walked off the job today in a strike against punishing rosters.

Junior doctors outside Christchurch Hospital today

Junior doctors outside Christchurch Hospital today Photo: Maja Burry / RNZ

About 2500 junior doctors, also known as resident medical officers, started the industrial action at 7am and will continue striking until 7am on Thursday.

The strike has meant the rescheduling of thousands of outpatient clinics and non-urgent surgeries, and hospitals have sought to reduce their likely workload during the 48-hour strike so they can focus on acute care.

Tara*, a junior doctor on strike today in Auckland, says the hours she and her colleagues are required to work are dangerous.

“Really, the issue isn’t about us. It’s about patient safety and that’s the whole reason we’re campaigning. I feel like it is actually affecting our patient care.”

Currently, junior doctors can be rostered on for 12 consecutive days, some of which are 14-hour shifts. Their contracts also mean they can be rostered to work seven nights in a row.      

“I know I’ve mistakenly prescribed the wrong drug or the wrong dose. It has always been picked up by the nurse, so it never eventuated to anything, but it could.”  

The New Zealand Resident Doctors Association wants the maximum number of days worked in a row cut from 12 to 10, and the number of night shifts reduced from seven to four.

“It’s not just coming to work and sitting at a desk all day; it’s quite exhausting. Sometimes you don’t have any breaks… your body never really has a chance to get used to it,” says Tara.

The 27-year-old, who has been working for almost a year, says the support of other doctors gets her through the arduous shifts.

“Unless you’re working these types of hours or in this environment, no one really understands how it’s possible to do. I guess it’s the care of the patients that motivates us to keep going.”

Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman said he had urged both sides in the dispute to negotiate a settlement.

"I'm encouraging both parties to get back to the table and get this thing settled."

Dr Coleman said it was unacceptable if junior doctors were working in unsafe conditions, but he had seen no objective evidence that their health and safety was being compromised.

Junior doctors worked an average of 53 hours a week, and the changes being sought would cost $60 million and require the recruitment of another 160 junior doctors, he said.

But Tara says doctors often work much longer than their rosters show.

“Even if you’re rostered on for an eight hour shift, you end up staying longer because you have to do certain things for patients – you can’t just pack up and go without making sure they’re safe.”  

“Sometimes people say the older generation had to work even longer hours than us, why are we making a big deal out of this? But I don’t think that really makes it right or justifies the hours we have to work.”

Senior doctors will provide cover, although relations between their union, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) and DHBs have been severely strained since a separate row late last week over the hourly rate they would be paid for the cover.

Nurses will be working as normal during the strike, and DHBs expected all nursing clinics would continue to operate unless a nurse was needed to step in and cover critical hospital services.

The situation and arrangements will vary between DHBs, and their national contingency planner for industrial action, Anne Aitcheson, is urging anyone who is unsure about an appointment for an outpatient clinic or non-urgent surgery, to consult their DHB's website and call the 0800 number provided.

*The doctor interviewed for this piece wishes to remain anonymous