Doctor crisis in Wellington Hospital baby unit
12 January 2006

Wellington Hospital has had to close its neo-natal unit to babies from outside the region to relieve pressure on overworked junior doctors.

The Resident Doctors Association says the situation has reached crisis point and dedicated staff are leaving because of the intense workload.

Seven junior doctors should be available to work in the neo-natal unit, which cares for the region's sickest infants, including premature births.

However, one doctor went on sick leave before Christmas and will be absent for another few weeks, one position is vacant, one person has resigned and left, and another junior doctor has quit and will leave soon.

The team is now three people short and caring for 29 babies, out of a total capacity of 34.

Capital and Coast District Health Board chief operating officer Meng Cheong said the unit had temporarily closed to babies from outside the region from last Friday to reduce demands on the remaining junior doctors. Infants were being referred to neo-natal units elsewhere. The arrangement was expected to last for several weeks.

[b:c1cfda24f8]Hospital managers met this week to discuss union and staff concerns at staffing levels and have pledged to "vigorously" recruit more doctors and locums, nationally and internationally[/b:c1cfda24f8].

"We are closely monitoring the current staffing situation in our neo-natal unit and continue to take steps to actively address it," Mr Cheong said. "This staffing situation developed recently, as a result of some unexpected resignations prior to Christmas."

The association, however, believes that at least one of the resignations was triggered by job stress.

Other steps taken to reduce demands on the unit's junior doctors include freeing them from non-essential paperwork that can be deferred and from work outside the unit.

One junior doctor told The Dominion Post she had considered resigning because her stress levels had skyrocketed and she was worried mistakes could happen.

"It's been incredibly stressful and I don't think babies have necessarily got the best care they could have. But I don't think anybody's been hurt. We've managed to struggle on, but paperwork has gone out the window.

"I've been involved before in a similar situation in a neo-natal unit where a child has ended up arresting because we were so stretched, and I just didn't want to get to that point again."

The doctor said she had been encouraged by the hospital moving to deal with the problems.

Association general secretary Deborah Powell said she would not be satisfied till the staff shortage was resolved. "It is very serious. The district health board knew about this before Christmas and did nothing."

Doctors in the unit had covered extra shifts during Christmas and New Year because there were not enough staff and they already worked long, tiring hours, she said.

"Highly dedicated people have resigned because they're not prepared to put up with the situation any more...It's an indictment on the system."