Doctors challenge health minister to be ‘an ethical employer’

Senior medical specialists have directly challenged the health minister to properly pay and resource a health workforce at breaking point.

Tanya Wilton, who works in Hutt Hospital’s emergency department, outlined the “insane” conditions staff were working in.

“Acutely, we have got a workforce that’s at breaking point. What’s missing for me is how do we look after the staff that are currently working their assessments off,” Wilton said, speaking as a member of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

But in return, staff pay did not reflect the extra work they were expected to take on, Wilton said.

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The challenge was laid before the health minister at the ASMS annual conference on Friday in Wellington, where the full room of emergency doctors, anesthetists, oral health experts and occupational specialists gave Little a polite dressing down.

ASMS executive director Sarah Dalton picked up on Wilton’s question, jumping in to ask Little to address the “culture of denial” for health workers.

“We are calling for you to show that leadership from the top that our healthcare workers are paid appropriately for all of the extra work that they are doing every day, every week, in every hospital across our services.”

Health Minister Andrew Little speaking at the senior doctors' conference on Friday morning.


Health Minister Andrew Little speaking at the senior doctors’ conference on Friday morning.

Little would not commit to anything in the room, but acknowledged: “I worry about the level and quality of workplace support, to some extent workplace culture that means staff don’t feel supported.”

Another delegate, occupational physician Dr. Alexandra Muthu, challenged Little to “be an ethical employer” and better invest in good working conditions for staff.

Muthu’s patients “are the people in this room,” but she said, “my waiting room is a corridor.” “We get told – you get paid well, suck it up.”

After the session, Muthu stressed that job sustainability was a greater concern than pay, for many. “Most of us would prefer to have more sustainable jobs [and] be respected as individuals [who] deserve our own health and well-being outside of our careers, before we have to work more.”

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) executive director Sarah Dalton.


Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) executive director Sarah Dalton.

Little responded that long-standing underinvestment in infrastructure and workforce.

“One of the consequences of underfunding is those things get neglected or downplayed.”

Little repeatedly pointed to a lack of long-term workforce planning as a key factor behind the situation we were in, which he again refused to call a crisis.

“It’s pretty evident, if there was workforce planning, it wasn’t done well,” Little told the room of delegates.

Emergency medicine specialist Dr. John Bonning.


Emergency medicine specialist Dr. John Bonning.

The conference, which began on Thursday, is titled: “Will We Get Better?” in recognition of the serious workforce issues facing the health system.

Emergency physician Dr John Bonning asked Little to support and invest in hospital access targets “that have been shown to work”.

Little replied that he expected hospital leaders and managers to, “when they get results, periodically, as I do, to interrogate them and say ‘what’s going on'”.

“The problems in ED at the moment are not the problems of ED,” Little said, adding it was symptomatic of problems across the health system.”

Minister of Health Andrew Little fronts senior medical professionals on Friday.


Minister of Health Andrew Little fronts senior medical professionals on Friday.

It’s a line Little has repeated more than once this week – a week which saw daily damning health headlines pointing to a seriously under-resourced system.

On Monday, GP organization GenPro launched a campaign, targeted at politicians, titled ‘Save Your Family Doctor Service’with its chairperson labeling working conditions “soul-destroying”.

On Tuesday, a Wellington mother revealed a nurse in the capital’s emergency department treated her a laminated card with Andrew Little’s contact details on it after she witnessed the “horror scenes” facing staff and patients.

On Wednesday, Stuff revealed Wellington’s pediatric surgical team would not be fully staffed for two yearsleaving surgeons from Christchurch holding together the unit that treats children across the lower North Island for at least another year.

On Thursday, a health recruiter said international nurses who want to work in New Zealand should prepare a year in advance. Nurses are not on the straight to residence tier and must apply for residency.

The same day, the Royal New Zealand College of GPs labeled results from an international survey of GPs “truly sobering”.

“After reading this, there should be no doubt that what our workforce is going through can only be called a crisis,” College medical director Dr. Bryan Betty said.

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