Allied health workers taking industrial action


Southland Hospital's physiotherapy department has fallen from 14.5 full-time equivalents to 3.5....
Southland Hospital's physiotherapy department has fallen from 14.5 full-time equivalents to 3.5. Photo: ODT files

Allied health workers do the "unglamorous but vital" tasks in the health system and should be compensated fairly, a frustrated southern employee says.

Allied health is a catch-all title for dozens of professions, which include anaesthetic technicians, oral health therapists, alcohol and drug clinicians, dietitians, and physiotherapists.

Workers in the Public Service Association union this week began a fortnight of industrial action in support of an unsettled collective pay claim and are at present working to rule, taking breaks and not doing overtime.

A southern allied health worker, who did not want to be named, said departments in some hospitals had suffered catastrophic staffing losses, such as the Southland Hospital physiotherapy department, which had fallen from 14.5 full-time equivalents to 3.5.

Similar staffing pressures across the southern health system had contributed to operations and procedures having to be postponed or cancelled, and patients not receiving appropriate pre-operative care to manage their condition or post-operative care to try to prevent complications or readmissions.

Many of the staff who had left were seniors, which caused problems with provision of some services and also with training.

"Novice and junior staff probably aren’t getting the mentoring and guidance that they require and that just becomes a vicious cycle. They will end up leaving as well," the worker said.

"It doesn’t help that the public health sector is significantly outgunned by the private sector in terms of what it can pay, which serves to create a bit of a perfect storm."

The Southern District Health Board said it respected the right of its staff take industrial action and acknowledged their important role.

"Patient care and safety remains our priority ... contingency plans are under way for life preserving services during this time."

It was twice asked how the work to rule notice had affected services but declined to answer.

About 500 southern health system workers are PSA members: their work to rule continues until May 20, and a full 24-hour strike is scheduled for May 16.

The SDHB’s allied health services were the subject of a damning report three years ago which found staff were stressed, fatigued and had a significant lack of trust in DHB leadership and management.

"It’s got worse, and in eight months’ time it will be even worse again," the health worker said.

"Allied health across the board is really feeling the pinch ... it is a vast sector with many different professions so it can be hard to get everyone on the same page, but 10,000 people across the country have said enough is enough."

Elsewhere, senior doctors could be the next health workers to walk off the job, after their union representative wrote an angry letter saying pay talks were becoming impossible.

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists president Dr Julian Vyas wrote to doctors this week to update them on pay talks.

He was becoming "increasingly angry and frustrated", he wrote.

The district health boards appeared to have adopted a "siege mentality" and were stalling as they waited for Health New Zealand to be fully established.

It would be in place from July 1 to replace the DHBs but the transition would be gradual, and DHB managers would be in place until the end of September.

The change could leave doctors in limbo after a year of pay negotiations.

"It beggars belief as to why our health employers are going out of their way to alienate large parts of their workforce who will be critical to the success of the upcoming health reforms ... ," Dr Vyas wrote.

The doctors and the DHBs resume formal bargaining today.

- Additional reporting RNZ

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