THE Port Elizabeth Hospital Complex is to offer only emergency surgery - and only before 5pm on some days of the week - due to what it says is a severe staff shortage.

The Eastern Cape health department is facing a budget shortfall of R2,5bn-R3bn, while some doctors have not been paid since January.

Hospitals would turn away patients requiring elective surgery, and only treat emergencies. Additionally, "all non-emergency referrals from district hospitals will be stopped, and the number of patients seen at our daily or weekly clinics will be limited," the heads of units at the complex warned this week.

The complex includes Dora Nginza Hospital, Livingstone Hospital and the Port Elizabeth Provincial Hospital.

"The crisis we face is essentially due to the fact that the department of health has placed a moratorium on the appointment of new junior and specialist doctors, while at the same time not renewing the contracts of doctors," the heads of units said in a joint statement this week.

"Doctors who have left by attrition or resignation have not been replaced, despite there being willing and qualified applicants."

Dr Basil Brown, one of the doctors who issued the statement, is being charged with misconduct for speaking to the media.

South African Medical Association chairman Mark Sonderup said yesterday the organisation "fully supported" its members in the province. "This was not an off-the-cuff decision to suddenly go rogue.. It follows on from a very exhaustive process and attempts at numerous levels to try and resolve the core issue they have, which is around the appointment of staff and proper funding of the services they are required to deliver in that province," he said.

"They have run up against brick walls with the regional authorities, the provincial authorities, and they even tried to engage the national department.

"They have had not one iota of positive response to their pleas."

Speaking on behalf of the unit heads, Ed Richardson of Siyathetha Communications said yesterday: " They don't want money, they want people so they can do their jobs properly. The reason they are only offering emergency surgery is because that is all they can offer."

The complex's surgery unit "has been working under conditions which are medico-legally indefensible and open doctors to litigation and disciplinary action by the Health Professions Council of SA", the doctors' statement read.

Although the surgery unit had 16 medical officers in January, it now has eight - five of whom cannot operate as a primary surgeon. That leaves only three doctors who can work as primary surgeons.

"In an emergency you can use them (the five officers ), and get past the medical authorities, but if it's a normal operation you can't get away with it," Mr Richardson said.

The unit has now decided that "on some days, no emergency surgical service will be available after 5pm due to lack of staff".

All elective surgery at the complex had been cancelled from Monday this week.

The Port Elizabeth Hospital Complex was a teaching hospital, but "the registrar training programme has ground to a halt", the unit heads said.

Eastern Cape department of health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said action was being taken against the doctors for "calling a press briefing without authority", and not because they spoke about problems at the complex.

"They have acted against the policy of the department. We dismiss claims that doctors are facing disciplinary procedures because they spoke about the challenges," he said.

"The department is aware of the challenges facing doctors and interventions are being put in place to address them. Provincial treasury has seconded two senior officials to assist the department in addressing the problems."

With Tamar Kahn

wilds@bdfm.co.za