MAM press release as reported in - 28/2/2005

The Times

Hospital overcrowding 'close to critical' - MAM
Cynthia Busuttil

Doctors at St Luke's Hospital and health centres may be directed to take industrial action next week by the Medical Association of Malta, which claims overcrowding at the hospital has nearly reached critical levels.

Association general secretary Martin Balzan said the union's council had approved a number of directives during a meeting last week in case it needed to resort to industrial action.

The doctors' dispute revolves around the government's decision to "freeze the appointments of doctors", which Dr Balzan described as "simply illogical" in view of the current "severe medical manpower shortfall".

The association complains that a number of newly graduated doctors and others with post-graduate qualifications have been denied their letters of appointment, and a number of vacancies across many specialities have remained unfilled.

The hospital is already facing industrial action by nurses, ordered by the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses, over a similar issue - a claimed shortage of nurses in an overcrowded hospital.

Dr Balzan said the doctors' union may order directives affecting staff deployment, but it did not elaborate. He also said that since there was a problem of under-staffing at health centres, the directives would probably be extended to those as well.

However, St Luke's Hospital chief executive officer Kenneth Grech said action at a time when the hospital was already overcrowded would definitely make the situation worse.

Dr Grech said the Health Division was working closely with the Management and Personnel Office within the Office of the Prime Minister to accelerate procedures to recruit doctors in certain areas in agreement with the association.

But Dr Balzan said the problem of overcrowding at St Luke's Hospital had reached close to critical levels, with very limited space for patients, and with the hospital also running out of corridor space.

"The authorities' efforts to quickly shift a small minority of the 70 social cases which chronically block beds and the taking over of surgical and gynaecological wards can only be described as too little, too late and just patching up a problem which has been there for years," he said.

"We have an undesirable situation which could be avoided with proper planning," he said.

Asked what was being done to try and reduce the number of patients in corridors, the hospital's CEO said the hospital had an obligation to admit all the patients who require acute care.

"Hence we cannot control the number of admissions into hospital. Our efforts are being directed towards placing patients within the hospital in the best possible way," he said.

Reacting to the association's statement that public safety was "soon going to be put at serious risk" Dr Grech said the hospital always deployed its staff in a manner which ensured, as far as possible, the safe treatment of patients.

"However, when this flexibility is lost for various reasons, including industrial action, the task is made even more difficult," he said.

Dr Balzan said overcrowding in hospital and the fact that doctors were not given the appointments they were waiting for were demotivating for doctors. Six considerably experienced doctors had decided to leave for the United Kingdom this week.

He said around 85 per cent of the doctors who graduated in 1999 had left the country, and another group were considering leaving.

The association is holding its annual general meeting on Monday, and Dr Balzan said it might then wait for a few days before issuing directives.

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