Surgery could be disrupted in pockets across the country next month, with anaesthetic technicians and laboratory workers issuing strike notices over understaffing and pay concerns.

Dr Deborah Powell, national secretary of APEX, said severe shortages of anaesthetic technicians has prompted APEX union members at three DHBs to issue strike notices for October to try and resolve the workforce crisis after negotiations with individual DHBs have been ongoing for between 10 months and a year.

Joining them are APEX laboratory workers employed by Southern Community Laboratories – which operates most of the DHB and community medical laboratories from the Wairarapa to Southland – who have issued a 24-hour strike notice for October 9.

But the first strike on the cards is less than a week away, with a 24-hour strike notice issued by Northland DHB anaesthetic technicians (ATs) for October 3 and October 11. The union and DHB went into mediation yesterday to try and avert the strike and further mediation is set down for Tuesday October 2. The union had been seeking a similar pay package to that accepted by NZNO nurses in August, but Powell said Northland DHB had offered a “paltry overall increase” of 2.43 per cent, which failed to address its substantial claims.

Meanwhile Northland DHB is advising patients booked for elective surgery on October 3 that their surgery may have to be rescheduled if a settlement is not reached but life-preserving surgeries would continue to be provided as part of an agreement with APEX

Hawke’s Bay ATs have given notice that they will walk off the job on October 5, prompting the DHB to postpone 13 elective surgeries planned for that day. Lakes DHB’s APEX ATs are also understood to have issued a strike notice for October; Southern DHB’s APEX ATs are also considering striking; while MidCentral DHB’s APEX ATs have withdrawn their strike notice to consider an offer.

Powell said the industrial unrest was due to a major shortage of anaesthetic technicians, which had been aggravated by the estimated $20,000-30,000  pay gap between ATs working in DHB hospitals and private surgical hospitals.

She said that Northland DHB, for example, was currently 5 FTE (fulltime equivalent) down out of 19 positions and a recent report from Auckland DHB (not an APEX site) was that it was 34 ATs short out of an AT workforce of 117.

“Certainly we know in the Northland situation that surgeries are being cancelled as a result of the shortfall – we’ve had 50 surgeries cancelled in the last two months alone as we simply don’t have enough anaesthetic techs to do the work.”

Powell said the workforce is now in crisis as the DHBs have failed to train sufficient ATs and retain them, which is now impacting on service delivery.

She said training “was entirely in the control of the DHBs” with anaesthetic technicians trained inhouse in a three-year apprenticeship-type model. “So the supply of trained anaesthetic technicians is entirely in the control of the DHBs and that is where we have fallen down … this is another failed workforce that DHBs have simply not proactively managed.” Powell said it could be turned around and that what had led to the level of current action around the country.

Northland DHB chief executive Dr Nick Chamberlain acknowledged there was a national shortage of anaesthetic technicians and said up until recently the DHB had a full complement of ATs. “We have fast-tracked further recruitment of technicians and in the interests of ‘training our own’ increased the number of trainees from three to six.”

Hawke’s Bay DHB chief executive Kevin Snee said in a statement that anaesthetic technicians were an integral part of operating theatre teams so, while APEX had agreed to ensure life-preserving surgeries can go ahead, planned elective surgery had to be postponed. He said the bargaining team was continuing to work with the union. “We are always hopeful we can reach agreement, but we need to plan for the event and postpone and reschedule those surgeries now.”

Laboratory workers also issue notice

More than 330 members of the NZ Medical Laboratory Workers Union, division of APEX, are also looking to strike after failing to reach a new collective agreement with the Southern Community Laboratories.

The current agreement with the major employer, which provides DHB and community laboratory services for the three Wellington DHBs and all the South Island (excluding Canterbury DHB’s hospital laboratories and the West Coast), expired on June 30.

Powell said about 90 per cent of hospital patients require laboratory tests to support their diagnosis and ongoing treatment.

Dr Peter Gootjes, Southern Community Laboratories’ chief executive, said it was to go into mediation with the union on Monday to try and resolve the dispute.

He said in case mediation was unsuccessful it had drawn up detailed plans of how its DHB and community services would be affected and was in contact with the relevant people. The impact of APEX laboratory workers striking would vary across the different centres, said Gootjes.

Clinical perfusionists return to talks

Meanwhile Auckland clinical perfusionists withdrew notice of their planned strike for this week after receiving an offer from Auckland DHB. The about 20 perfusionists support the national heart transplant service and other cardiac surgery requiring heart-lung bypass machines. Powell said the perfusionists were yet to settle an agreement and negotiations were ongoing with the DHB.

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