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Specialist burnout crisis in public hospitals

Health Minister must require health bosses to address specialist burnout crisis in public hospitals; more specialists needed

The union representing specialists in public hospitals is calling on Health Minister David Clark to require the bosses running district health boards to prioritise fixing the crisis of hospital specialist burnout.

“They need to act urgently – and be required to do so – to employ more specialists,” says Ian Powell, Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

He was commenting on media reports of severe burnout and fatigue among hospital doctors putting their care and safety at risk and affecting compassion for patients, with one doctor describing the hospital environment as chronic and toxic (

An ASMS survey of senior doctors and dentists working in New Zealand hospitals, published in 2016, found that half of hospital specialists taking part in the study reported symptoms of burnout – ie, high levels of fatigue and exhaustion (

Nearly half attributed this to their work, citing frustrations with management, intense and unrelenting workloads, under-staffing, and onerous on-call duties. Burnout was highest among women, and particularly among female doctors aged between 30 and 39 (70.5%).

“Hospital specialists are overloaded and overwhelmed with the work on their plate, and we know that in many instances they are working short-handed,” says Mr Powell.

“It is simply not a sustainable situation for hospital specialists, and the Government needs to act to require immediate improvements.”

He says other ASMS surveys of clinical leaders at various DHBs indicate that specialist shortages are around 20 to 25%.

“If this is not a crisis that is dangerous and intolerable for the health of specialists and the safety of patients, what is? DHB bosses have been too slow to act to fix this and we are seeing the consequences for our members.

“We expect the Minister of Health to instruct DHBs to address this crisis as a matter of priority. Not only is it bad for the doctors themselves and their patients, specialist shortages also cost DHBs money because they then have to employ expensive temporary replacements to cover some of the gaps in their workforce.

“Specialists are a relatively small part of the public hospital workforce but they are critical to the functioning of our public health system, and we need to make sure we have enough of them. This level burnout is unacceptable and shameful.

“Health Minister David Clark inherited this crisis, but he must now acknowledge it, own it and be part of the solution.”


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