ETHICAL Dilemma: Samas Mark Sonderup

Staff Writer

THE health authorities’ letter to doctors who have spoken publically about the crisis at Port Elizabeth hospitals is like holding a gun to their heads, the SA Medical Association (Sama) says.

Sama chairman Mark Sonderup has said this in referring to the notices the Eastern Cape Department of Health has issued to the doctors asking them to justify their action.

“I’ve seen the letter and anyone who understands labour disciplinary proceedings knows such a letter is standard procedure before disciplinary action is taken,” he said.

“It’s like holding a gun to someone’s head and asking for reasons not to shoot them.”

The doctors are the clinical heads of specialised units at the Dora Nginza, Livingstone and Provincial hospitals.

They said the shortage of doctors and other staff was so serious they would have to limit the services offered, such as offering only life-saving and emergency surgery.

The crisis had arisen because of a moratorium on the appointment of junior doctors and specialists and the department’s not renewing doctors’ contracts, they said. Some sessional doctors had not been paid for months.

In issuing their statement they said they were doing so “out of sheer desperation” as they had made numerous attempts to raise these and other issues with the provincial and national health authorities, to no avail.

Sonderup said: “These doctors are highly experienced individuals and have tried for years to get the authorities to respond to their concerns. My question is, why was the first response they received a letter of misconduct?”

Sizwe Kuphelo, spokesman for the department, said no formal disciplinary charges had been filed against the doctors, but they had been asked to justify their actions.

“They held a press briefing without authority ... They now have to suffer the consequences just like any other government official.”

Sonderup said the department was playing with words.

He said the doctors had faced an ethical dilemma. They’d had to choose between seeing a continued lack of care and treatment for their patients or going against the Public Sector Act, which prohibited them from unauthorised liaison with the media.

“Doctors have a dual loyalty – to their patients, as well as their employers.”

Sonderup said that historically doctors who spoke out had been raked over the coals. For example, Wendy Orr faced disciplinary action in 1985 after speaking out about the treatment of detainees.