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Teed off: Govt shirty over hospital doctor protest

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The State Government is trying to stop Royal Adelaide Hospital doctors from wearing protest T-shirts about overcrowding, despite Labor backing a high-profile ambulance campaign before the election.

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The SA Salaried Medical Officers Association told InDaily the Central Adelaide Local Health Network has taken action in the SA Employment Tribunal to block RAH emergency doctors from wearing T-shirts at work with slogans such as “Hospital overcrowding harms you and me” and “We need space to keep you safe”.

The T-shirts are part of industrial action planned by the union, along with doctors refusing to do some clerical work.

“Doctors have tried everything and we are seeing increasing numbers of admitted patients,” SASMOA industrial officer Bernadette Mulholland said.

“We don’t have the space, we have bed jams right throughout the system.”

Mulholland said doctors want to wear the T-shirts over their scrubs to “highlight the problems that they are actually having”.

However, she said the department had “thwarted” those attempts by taking action in the SA Employment Tribunal, with negotiations continuing.

In Opposition, Labor made health its focus, supporting a highly-visible campaign by the paramedics’ union to write protest messages in chalk on ambulances.

Paramedics were directed to stop doing so by the employment tribunal – an order they ignored – after the then Liberal Government took action.

Current Health Minister Chris Picton, in Opposition, supported the paramedics’ union campaign.

“Paramedics continuing to speak up today despite attempts by @marshall_steven to silence them,” he tweeted in June last year.

“The Marshall Government claims people are scared of chalk. Actually they are scared of not getting an ambulance when they need one.”

Mulholland described the proposed doctors’ action as “small-level industrial action”.

“The community would see the T-shirts and certainly everybody would be able to see them on a day to day basis throughout the hospital,” she said.

Doctors are also proposing to refuse to fill out paperwork “which they believe is unnecessary for the care of the patient”.

Mulholland said the Central Adelaide Local Health Network pursued the matter in the employment tribunal “halting the action whilst the parties discuss whether or not there can be found any solution to the current issues facing that emergency department long term”.

“What we are seeking as a resolution at this time is that no admitted patient spends greater than 12 hours in the emergency department and that there are no more than 12 patients (in this category),” she said.

Picton told InDaily: “My approach is I want to work with the doctors to resolve these issues. The doctors have raised very legitimate concerns in terms of the access of care for people in the emergency department.”

“They’ve put forward a number of proposals on how we can try to resolve those issues and we’re now actively working with them to resolve them,” he said.

“My approach as the Minister is to try to work with our clinicians and I don’t want to have in place industrial squabbles when we can just try to resolve the issues that are being worked through.”

Picton said health authorities had been in discussions with doctors for weeks.

“They haven’t started any industrial campaign, they haven’t started any industrial protests because SA Health and Central Adelaide Local Health Network have been meeting with them and working through their concerns,” he said.

“So the proposals around T-shirts haven’t started – there’s nothing in place – because I understand the doctors are happy to keep working with SA Health and try to resolve these issues and that’s the approach that I want to see.

“My preference is to negotiate, or even better, to proactively work with clinicians to resolve problems rather than ending up in a situation where people feel that they have to take this action.

“I’m not concerned about the T-shirts. I’m concerned about how we can provide patient care. I’m concerned about the issues that they’re raising and that’s my number one focus.”

It comes as the state’s emergency doctors voice their concerns over the escalating health crisis.

Dr Michael Edmonds, SA faculty chair of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, said “without question, South Australia’s healthcare system and emergency departments remain under extreme pressure, and addressing the multitude of issues currently being faced must be a priority”.

“These pressures reflect longstanding, systemic issues that have been identified for many years, and are certainly exacerbated by the ongoing, significant number of COVID-19 cases, and the winter ‘flu season’,” he said.

Edmonds said the Government had made “early efforts” to implement long-term solutions to address some of the complex contributors, both in the hospital system and in the community.

“While it is important to fully understand the issues documented over a number of years, both long and short-term action is needed,” he said.

“Immediate actions would include investment in supporting hospital flow, including a seven-day model that includes access to radiology, specialist and allied health consults, as well as to discharge support and options.”

Edmonds said improved flow from the ED to holding bays for people waiting for hospital beds and improved coordination of inter-hospital transfers would also help unclog the system.

He said there needed to be a focus on establishing a “reliable workforce” across the system.

He also called for the establishment of a “senior clinical council” to report to the Minister and Department to provide “vital clinical input” on ways to fix the system.

The Government has said it is opening every possible available bed to ease pressure on the system, including purchasing extra beds in private hospitals for public patients.

It is also recruiting more doctors, nurses and paramedics.

Addressing the ongoing health crisis, Picton this afternoon told reporters “we know that our health system is under increasing pressure and we know how hard our doctors, nurses, paramedics, allied health professionals are working”.

“But we also know that there simply isn’t enough capacity in the system,” he said.

“As a new government, as a new Minister, I am very keen to spend as much time as possible… out on the front line speaking to our hard-working clinicians about the challenges they’re (experiencing)… and listening to them about proposals that they are putting forward about how we can address problems in the system.”

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