Monday, December 31, 2007

Struggle to recruit cancer specialsts

RUTH HILL - The Dominion Post | Monday, 29 October 2007

Wellington's embattled child cancer unit will struggle to recruit specialists now that its last remaining paediatric oncologist has resigned, says the union representing senior clinicians.

Anne Mitchell, who has been working alone since her colleague Liz Hesketh left for Australia in July, has told the board she will finish at the end of January.

Dr Mitchell has declined to comment publicly, but it is believed that she has not yet accepted another position.

Parents told The Dominion Post Dr Mitchell was "working around the clock" to look after desperately ill patients.

Ian Powell, chief executive of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, said it was going to be "very, very difficult" for Capital and Coast District Health Board to recruit two specialists and restore tertiary (advanced) services.

"This is a symptom of the medical workforce crisis in this country, which affects smaller district health boards and smaller services within bigger DHBs."

He said previous reports had highlighted the need for three paediatric oncologists in Wellington, but that level was never achieved.

Prior to Dr Mitchell's arrival, Dr Hesketh had been the sole specialist for some time.

"It was two for a while, but now they are down to one, and that's no longer sustainable for that person.

"It would have to be an extraordinary individual, someone taking altruism to an extreme level, to want to work under those conditions."

Mr Powell, whose organisation is stuck in a long-running pay dispute with district health boards, said New Zealand would continue to struggle to attract specialists when Australian hospitals were offering 50 per cent to 100 per cent higher base salaries.

Advice to Capital and Coast last month was that unless an agreement was forged to create a single virtual tertiary centre within three months, the Wellington unit should stop managing new patients independently and downgrade permanently to a secondary unit.

This would mean all new patients would be referred to Auckland or Christchurch.

A spokeswoman for Capital and Coast said despite Dr Mitchell's resignation, the board was continuing negotiations with Canterbury District Health Board over plans for a combined service, which would allow the restoration of tertiary services in Wellington.

Recruitment had begun for two replacement specialists, and the board was "pressing ahead" with plans for the development of a dedicated paediatric oncology area, she said.

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