The doctors, known as Resident Medical Officers (RMOs), will embark on the first of two 48-hour strikes from 7am on Tuesday as negotiations between DHBs and the largest junior doctors’ union, the New Zealand Resident Doctors’ Association (RDA), falter.
As a result, scores of non-essential appointments, procedures and clinics have been postponed across the country, however life-preserving care and emergency treatment will not be affected.
Hutt Hospital senior house officer Dr Will Blackburne said that while the decision to strike was not taken lightly, doctors felt they had to draw a line in the sand.
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“We are still working 10 days in a row with at least a couple of 16-hour days within that 10-day period and that’s what we agreed to as a safer alternative to the previous rostering system.
“The DHBs still aren’t very happy with that. They would prefer us to going back to working 12 days in a row, but we think it’s certainly safer for us and for our patients to work in the current system.”
DHB spokesman Dr Peter Bramley said the current rostering system did not offer flexibility and the “one-size-fits-all” approach adopted in 2016 did not suit all hospitals.
That had created a number of “unintended consequences” including staffing difficulties and challenges in maximising RMO training opportunities.
“DHBs are absolutely committed to ensuring that all of our employees have safe working conditions and our primary commitment to our public is that we deliver safe care.
“Many of the RMOs are wanting the change because it brings greater flexibility at other parts of their four or six-week roster to actually strengthen training and give greater periods of rest.
The haggling over the Multi-Employer Collective Agreement (MECA) began when the last agreement expired last February.
Pay, working and training conditions have also been issues thrashed out during the stalled negotiations.
“We think that [the DHBs] have treated this issue in a very negative way and ultimately we’re being punished for working for safer hours as we did two years ago,” Blackburn said.
“Ultimately, it’s cheaper and easier for them. They can employ fewer junior doctors and it’s less complicated for them to create the rosters.”
For Bramley, Nelson Marlborough Health chief executive, Friday’s news a second strike would take place came as more of a disappointment rather than a surprise.
However, he underscored the DHBs’ intention to return to the negotiating table. “We would be very keen to do so. I think the offer is there. We’ve put a number of variations around the issues which we’d love them to consider.
“So far, we haven’t been able to have the NZRDA think creatively or constructively with us on how we can make progress on these,” Bramley said.
While it was “impossible to know” exactly how many doctors would strike, Blackburne estimated between 350 and 400 doctors from the Wellington region would be involved.
Nationally, the numbers ranged from about 2000 to as many as 3200 doctors.
The industrial action has forced all DHBs to establish contingency plans, with senior medical staff being called on to help.
“They are working additional shifts, night shifts they wouldn’t normally do, so we have sufficient medical staff available for people needing acute care,” explained DHB contingency planner Anne Aitcheson.
The doctors will become the first group to strike in 2019, but the latest in a string of medical professionals to walk off the job, following last year’s midwives and nurses’ strikes.
A DHB spokesperson said a full-time house officer – a doctor working in the two years after graduation – received an average base salary of $80,000. However, the pay structure was complicated and dependent on the hours worked per week (40 to 60 hours+) and their level of experience.
- Junior doctors will form a picket outside Auckland Hospital (7.30am-9.30am) and in Dunedin (corner of Great King and Hanover streets) at noon on Tuesday. Wellington RMOs were expected to form picket lines during the union’s second strike at the end of the month.