Industrial Action by DHB Psychologists: A Letter to Hon Ruth Dyson MP from Dr Rikki Thompson, Registered Clinical Psychologist

Hon Ruth Dyson MP
Private Bag 18 888
Parliament Buildings
Wellington 6160
25 October 2019

Dear Ms Dyson,

Re: Industrial Action by DHB Psychologists

I am writing as one of your constituents to express my concerns and frustrations with the lack of action being taken by the Government to address the Psychology workforce crisis in our DHBs. As a Clinical Psychologist working for a DHB myself, I see every day the impact of this crisis on the mental health and wellbeing of patients, who are themselves constituents of yourself and this Government.

A key finding from the Government’s Mental Health and Addiction inquiry last year detailed the need to increase access and choice of services. Specifically, it was identified that we need to
significantly increase access to high quality ‘talking therapies’, such as are delivered by Psychologists. This has also been recognised and acted on by other countries such as Australia and the UK, with the subsequent results being significantly positive in terms of mental health and wellbeing outcomes, as well as cost-efficiency. I applaud our current Government’s response to the Mental Health and Addiction inquiry in terms of their unprecedented focus on Mental Health in the ‘Wellbeing Budget’, however; I have not yet seen any meaningful impact of this focus, and I fear the added resource is not necessarily being directed where is it most needed or where it would have the most impact.

The international bench mark is that health services should have 20 Psychologist FTE per 100,000 population. New Zealand DHBs employ 11.8 FTE on average. By their own estimates DHBs nationwide have a 34% vacancy rate for Psychologists. Our workforce is in crisis, and it is those who need our services most that are suffering, with wait-list times to see a Psychologist measured typically in months. Recruitment and retention of these highly skilled workers is appalling as conditions are driving Psychologists away in droves. Not only are they leaving to much higher-paid positions in private practice, but to other Government Departments such as the Department of Corrections. The ailing DHB workforce is subsequently overworked, underpaid, and increasingly undervalued. We are struggling particularly to retain our Senior Psychologists, who are necessary to supervise the limited number of new graduates produced each year. I’m told the Government has provided funding for Universities to increase their annual training intakes, which is great, though it won’t matter if there is no experienced workforce to supervise them.

DHB Psychologists who are members of the APEX union (representing over 90% of the workforce) are currently undertaking industrial action, seeking to address these issues as part of their MECA negotiations. To my knowledge, Psychologists in this country have never taken part in strike action before, which should be an indication of how bad things have become. I cannot stress enough just how uncomfortable we all are with doing this. We are acutely aware, perhaps more so that any others involved, just what sort of impact this has on our patients. This has been a decision born of desperation, and an appreciation of the fact that not doing this will ultimately mean that many more will go without the help that they desperately need.

The MECA negotiations to date do not appear to have taken place in good faith, with DHBs reportedly coming to the table with no mandate from the Ministry of Health to offer anything meaningfully better than the status quo. An alternate union representing Psychologists settled previously for much less than what is being asked for, and this seems to be used as a rationale for offering no more to us. This alternate union represents less than 10% of Psychologists. The latest offer made to APEX members just last week not only ignores almost every issue raised (pay parity, annual leave, professional development, accelerated advancement, supervision allowances, psychology leadership committees), but equates to an offer that fails even to equal that of the other, minority union (including no back-dating to when our previous MECA expired, in February).

I’m told the DHBs put forward a proposal to Government that would have addressed many of the issues Psychologists have raised, and that the Government rejected this with little discussion. How can this be? I’m told by our negotiation team that they were “willing to risk an exodus of Psychologists from DHBs and did not seem concerned about retaining Psychologists at all”. How can this be? The Government cannot both claim to be addressing the Mental Health crisis in our country (with some of the worst suicide statistics in the developed world) and at the same time refuse to support the front-line practitioners who are in the trenches every day, using everything they have to make a difference.

I would ask you, Ms Dyson, to raise this issue with your party, and with the Hon Dr David Clark, Minister of Health. I would ask that you advocate for Psychologists, and those that need them, by impressing on Government the need to address the issues raised by APEX during these negotiations. Release the required funding so that DHBs can negotiate in good faith, and with a mandate to work with us in resolving the issues. We are not a large group (which is in and of itself most of the issue) and so we require someone like yourself to be our voice in this matter. All we want to do is to get back to our business of caring for the most vulnerable among us.

I look forward to receiving a response from you.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Rikki Thompson
Registered Clinical Psychologist
Port Hills Electorate

Contact APEX