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The senior doctors' union is accusing the Southern District Health Board of attempting to stifle public debate by disciplining a doctor for speaking to the media.
Yesterday, in an email to Southern DHB members, Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) executive director Ian Powell said the DHB issued a formal first warning to Dunedin Hospital emergency department specialist Dr John Chambers because of an interview with the Otago Daily Times in July.
"With considerable regret I am advising you as a member employed by Southern DHB of a serious intimidation threat to our members, and to senior medical and dental staff generally."
Speaking to the ODT as a union representative, Dr Chambers had criticised the DHB for making little progress appointing a permanent ED clinical leader. The position had been vacant for more than three months. Dr Chambers had also criticised reported comments from chief executive Carole Heatly, in which she said too many patients were presenting at ED.
The email yesterday said the union would fight the proposed disciplinary action, as Dr Chambers' actions were consistent with the terms of his employment agreement.
"DHBs are obliged to respect the right of senior medical staff to comment publicly on matters relevant to their professional expertise and experience.
"This extends to situations when the senior doctor may differ from their DHB over a particular matter."
The union would not usually relay details of an individual's employment issue.
"But, unfortunately, this situation is so serious, including wider implications for the medical profession and the public health system, that exigency requires it."
The DHB's argument that Dr Chambers failed to discuss the story with management was "wrong", the email said.
Dr Chambers was taking part in an ongoing public debate about ED, and it would be "unfair and absurd" to expect him to liaise with managers every time he was contacted by the media for comment.
He was not a "lone voice", and represented the views of many colleagues. If anything, his views were more moderate than others, Mr Powell said.
The union had written to the DHB objecting to the proposed disciplinary action.
"Perhaps the greatest irony is that he is being threatened with disciplinary action because of his commitment to ensure the [implementation] of government policy in emergency care," Mr Powell said.
"As most of you will be aware, Dr Chambers is a former clinical director of the emergency department, is active in the leadership of the emergency medicine college, and is the ASMS vice-president for the Otago branch."
In response, DHB chief medical officer Dr David Tulloch said through a spokeswoman it was inappropriate to comment on a disciplinary process while it was under way: "We have an ethical obligation to our employees and we do not believe that the appropriate way to manage employment relationships is to conduct a disciplinary process via the media and we will not be doing so."
Dr Tulloch said the DHB did not try to prevent clinicians from speaking to the media, but requested they first raise concerns with management.
Dr Chambers declined to comment when contacted.