Southern sonographers issue strike notice

Desperate Southern District Health Board sonographers worried public ultrasound services could become a thing of the past have voted to strike for five days later this month.

Sonographers working in the Dunedin and Invercargill hospitals are coming under increasing pressure as more leave for better paid private sector jobs, Association of Professional and Executive Employees (Apex) Southern District Health Board sonographer delegate Bernadette Gourley, of Invercargill, said.

''If things don't change, publicly funded and available ultra-sounds won't be.''

Sonographers, who provide pregnancy scans and diagnose many other conditions, could earn up to 25% more in private practice, while those working for the Auckland health boards earned 12% more.

Nationwide, 30 sonographers had left the public services in the past 15 months.

Of the four qualified sonographer positions in Invercargill only two were filled by permanent staff, while in Dunedin three of the four full-time equivalent positions were filled.

The situation meant the waiting list for non-urgent scans in Invercargill was 11 months while in Dunedin the wait for musculoskeletal investigation was more than 12 months and four months for other non-urgent scans.

''On a day-to-day basis the acute work gets the highest priority but it pushes the non-urgent work out.''

The lack of staff meant they could not ''back-fill'' when people called in sick, meaning appointments had to be postponed, and it was a struggle for staff to get leave, she said. It was also difficult to get the time to teach new sonographers.

''It's a significant problem; this [strike action] is a last-ditch attempt.''

To fill the gaps, the health board had to pay more expensive locums or specialist radiologists, especially after hours, she said.

''There is a great deal of disappointment and frustration at the reluctance to pay us fairly. It's plain unfair.''

The sonographers have issued strike notice from 5pm on November 14 to 8am on November 20.

Apex national secretary Deborah Powell said adding to the issue, which was being felt nationally, was the breakdown in contract negotiations following 15 months of negotiation, after an Apex offer for sonographers at all district health boards to be paid under one agreement and for pay parity nationally was refused by district health board chief executives.

Southern District Health Board medical director Dr Marion Poore said the board was assessing what would be required during any industrial action related to this national negotiation process. She said the board continued to advertise for staff but found it a challenge to recruit for part-time fixed-term positions.

The vacancies in Dunedin were due to parental leave and a retirement, while in Invercargill the two part-time fixed term vacancies were also due to parental leave.

''We only have a 0.4 FTE permanent position vacant and have been fully staffed up until fairly recently, when these positions became vacant.''

In the meantime, one locum was providing intermittent cover in Invercargill for four months.

The amount paid to locum sonographers by the board over the past two years is $45,000.

-rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz

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