City sees ophthalmologist drain

The shortage of specialists in Dunedin has reduced the number of ophthalmology trainees this year.

Earlier this month, it was reported more than 120 people could miss out on cataract operations at Dunedin Hospital because the Otago District Health Board is short of specialists.

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists New Zealand qualifications and education committee chairman Dr Brian Sloan said two rather than three people were being trained in Dunedin because the college was not satisfied with the amount of supervision available from consultant ophthalmologists.

While a reduction of one trainee might not sound significant, he pointed out that throughout New Zealand at any one time, there were only 18 trainees at varying stages of their five-year training.

Staff shortages were hurting Dunedin twice, Dr Sloan said.

It was hoped the extra training place could be reinstated in Dunedin following a review of the situation in July or August.

Dunedin is the only one of the country's five training centres to have trainee numbers limited by the lack of senior medical officers, although there are 16 unfilled public hospital vacancies nationally for ophthalmologists.

The college's New Zealand chairman Dr Jim Stewart said the organisation wished to establish more training posts and had done the preparatory work for this, but new positions depended on the funding of salaries and provision of clinic space and operating theatre time in public hospitals.

There was a steady loss of New Zealand-trained ophthalmologists to Australia, where they could earn twice as much. Recently, specialists had departed from Auckland, Palmerston North and Timaru.

Dr Sloan said there were only about 120 ophthalmologists in New Zealand, a relatively low number in proportion to population, and each year between three and five trainees completed training so it did not take many departures to have an impact on services.

Improving pay and conditions, as was the case with other specialties, would improve retention rates.

Staff shortages resulting in delaying cataract surgery, as has happened in Otago, had both social and economic costs for patients, he said.

As their sight deteriorated they might lose independence including the ability to drive and they might be more susceptible to falls that could result in fractures.

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