DEFYING orders from the Eastern Cape Health Department, Port Elizabeth Hospital Complex doctors yesterday spoke out about the crippling staff shortages which had forced them to take the drastic step of closing the Dora Nginza Hospital emergency surgery unit from July 1.
Having lost 25% of their staff in various departments such as anaesthetics to attrition, early retirement and resignation, doctors representing unit heads within the complex said yesterday that non-emergency referrals from district hospitals would be halted.
The move followed the closure in April of the emergency surgery unit at Livingstone Hospital which was operating with just one principal specialist, but needed a chief medical officer and six medical officers to function properly.
A moratorium from the department on new appointments had crippled the complex, which includes the Provincial, Livingstone and Dora Nginza hospitals, senior officials said yesterday.
As of next month, the three hospitals would only perform emergency services to patients until the department lifted the moratorium on new recruits.
Despite provincial bosses threatening disciplinary action should the doctors speak out on the crippling funding and staff crisis, the head of cardiology, Dr Basil Brown, flanked by paediatrics head Dr Lungile Pepeta and general surgery head Dr Sats Pillay, held a press conference at the Ray Mhlaba Conference Centre.
The three spoke on behalf of more than 20 heads of units at the complex, many of whom were present at the press briefing.
"The crisis we face is essentially due to the fact that the Eastern Cape department has placed a moratorium on the appointment of new junior and specialist doctors, while at the same time not renewing the contracts of doctors who have worked in our departments previously,” Brown said.
"Doctors who have left by attrition or resignation have not been replaced, despite there being willing and qualified applicants. To compound matters further, the salaries of a number of doctors who have worked on a sessional basis have not been paid.”
He said they had exhausted all avenues to persuade the provincial authorities to reverse the moratorium on the filling of critical medical posts.
"In April this year, Treasury made it clear they won’t be hiring any staff due to no funds. The current staff shortage is brought on by our own administration,” Brown said.
Prior to informing the public about the dire situation at the hospitals, the doctors said they had written to the premier Noxolo Kiviet and Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi appealing for intervention, but this fell on deaf ears.
"The need to make a public statement was brought on by the fact that if the department could not appoint staff in the critical posts, the service that we deliver could collapse. At this point in time we are sitting with doctors that are doing the work of about three doctors.
"They can’t work effectively. Instead, the department is giving us interns who are not yet qualified to do the job,” Brown said.
Because of this, the complex said only emergency surgeries would be performed from next month and elective or cold surgeries would no longer be performed.
In addition, all non-emergency referrals from district hospitals would be stopped. The number of patients seen at the daily and weekly clinics would also be limited.
The doctors said the under-staffing had resulted in a slew of resignations by disillusioned doctors within the casualty department at Dora Nginza and Livingstone, where there were not enough doctors to run the unit.
Provincial bosses were fuming over the doctors’ announcement.
Angry Health MEC Sicelo Gqobana vowed to take action against what he called "the instigators of the very public protest”.
He said the doctors had links to "senior managers” in Bhisho who had made a mess of hiring doctors for the complex.
"This is political. It is the third time that the doctors from Port Elizabeth get involved in politics. I want to be clear that they do not have the power to suspend services. I will take serious action against those who lead this protest,” Gqobana said.
Department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo reiterated Gqobana’s comments, saying the doctors had no authority to close any unit.
"We are aware of all the challenges facing the department, and the premier and MEC are addressing those challenges. The emergency unit at Dora Nginza will never close. If they do close it then they are undermining the current government and regard themselves as higher than government.
"We have a new system to be implemented in employing new staff and we are planning to address the financial challenges. What the PE complex is in the habit of doing is hiring and firing without departmental approval.
"Going public is just creating trouble because we are all expected to abide by the rules of the department and this constitutes putting the department into disrepute.”