Southern hospitals lack senior doctors, survey shows

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
Southern hospitals are facing a serious shortage of senior medical officers (SMOs), which may be affecting patient care.

The senior doctors’ union, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, recently conducted a survey of heads of departments at all New Zealand hospitals about staffing numbers.

"Dunedin estimated they needed 34.5 more full-time equivalents, or 32% of the current SMO staffing allocations in their departments, to provide safe, quality and timely healthcare," the union said.

"In Southland and districts, it was estimated they needed 17 more full-time equivalents, which equated to 20% of their current SMO staffing allocations."

Not all department heads had replied to the survey but the southern response rate of 64% suggested staffing levels were inadequate and doctors lacked opportunities to undertake further training or to take leave, the study reported.

Just over a quarter of head doctors who responded said their SMOs rarely or never made use of their recommended allocation of 30% of non-clinical time.

"This situation was worse at Dunedin with only a quarter stating their staff were often or always able to access their recommended non-clinical time."

Half of Dunedin heads of department felt their staff had insufficient time to undertake training and education duties, and 63% said there was inadequate access to locums or additional staff to cover for long-term leave.

Overall, 42% believed there was inadequate internal backup cover for short-term sick leave, annual leave, or staff away on other duties.

That led to "presenteeism", the union said and staff felt obliged to work when they were unwell.

"None of this is good for delivering high quality patient-centred care which, according to a growing body of evidence, not only leads to better health outcomes for people, but also helps to reduce health care costs by improving safety and by decreasing the use of diagnostic testing, prescriptions, hospitalisations and referrals," the union said.

Southern District Health Board chief medical officer Nigel Millar said the board regularly met the ASMS, and senior doctors had supporting the organisation prioritising hiring allied health staff.

"There are no simple answers to the modern dilemmas of healthcare funding and provision, but a balanced approach is essential," Dr Millar said.

"Focusing on only one profession in one sector of the health system is important to gain understanding, but increases in spending should not respond to isolated issues without accounting for the whole."

Scarcity of health staff was an international, not just a southern phenomenon, he said.

"The areas of shortage in a particular specialty tend to be global rather than specific to Southern DHB.

"Our recruitment continues as it was prior to Covid-19, though any international recruits may be delayed in gaining registration to practice and will also have to undergo New Zealand's quarantine requirements upon arrival into the country."

The SDHB would discuss the survey findings with the ASMS when the organisations next met, Dr Millar said.

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