The South African National Defence Union (Sandu) plans to take the defence department to court over a unilateral decision to halve the limit of weekly overtime hours.
Military doctors are up in arms about the decision, primarily because it would put patients’ lives at risk after hours and could lead to doctors working unpaid overtime to save lives.
Sandu spokesperson Pikkie Greeff said the union was consulting its lawyers and the affected staff on its plan to take legal action against the department for “unilaterally and unlawfully changing the service conditions of medical staff and endangering the lives of military patients”.
According to Greeff, there was no consultation process on this issue, nor was there any clarity on what would be done for patients during the hours that doctors were no longer allowed to cover.
“How is it going to work if they are cutting overtime hours and yet hospitals are severely understaffed?
“Are they going to expect doctors to work for free?”
A memorandum from the South African Military Health Service was sent to medical staff last week, stating that no specialist, dentist or medical officer would be allowed to exceed eight hours overtime a week. The limit was previously 16 hours a week.
According to a doctor who spoke under condition of anonymity, doctors were typically reimbursed for overtime as much as three months after putting in their claims.
The service employs about 400 medical doctors through the department of health and has a total work force of about 10 000.
The department of defence has yet to answer questions sent to it by The Citizen regarding the memorandum.
Another doctor, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said he recently decided to resign and take a job overseas after working for the military for about two years.
While he did not share Greeff’s sentiments about unfavourable working conditions in military hospitals, he was incensed by government’s decision to cut overtime hours.
“That causes a significant problem, especially in the casualty setting, where doctors are already in short supply.
“Not just that, but there are also financial implications for those doctors,” he said.
He said that in addition to serving patients, doctors in the military often also had to be deployed as soldiers, which would make the job doubly unattractive to new doctors.
“You are given a rank and can be deployed somewhere in the country or overseas.
“That is also a problem because most doctors are professional people who studied hard for this career, and they may not have envisioned this kind of future.
“I am leaving because of those two reasons: the overtime reduction issue and being deployed as a soldier, and also because there are better opportunities overseas.”