SOUTH African surgeons on Wednesday voiced their support for three senior Eastern Cape doctors who faced a disciplinary enquiry after they called a media conference last week to announce that the short-staffed Port Elizabeth Hospital Complex had cancelled all elective surgery.

The clinicians highlighted the crisis facing the Dora Nginza, Livingstone and Port Elizabeth Provincial hospitals to the media in a move widely regarded by observers as a measure of last resort after they failed to get the Eastern Cape health department to fill empty posts or reappoint staff whose contracts had expired.

Public servants are usually not allowed to speak to the media about their employer.

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

The provincial health department faces a budget shortfall estimated to be between R2,5bn-R3bn and has failed to pay some doctors since January.

A joint statement issued by the Association of Surgeons of South Africa (Assa) and the Federation of South African Surgeons (Fosas) on Wednesday said that while the doctors' course of action was contrary to their employment contracts, they were morally and ethically obliged to speak out about the crisis facing patients in Port Elizabeth.

"Working in the public sector one has to be the voice for the totally disenfranchised, the poorest of the poor. It's very difficult for patients to express their concerns, and when we see the more global picture it's imperative (that we speak out)," said Prof Martin Veller, chairman of Assa, in an interview.

South Africa had a proud history of doctors speaking out, he said. "It goes back to the Biko affair ... It clearly is a lot easier if you are a very senior individual, but the culture still needs to be one of highlighting issues (on behalf of patients)," he said.

The South African Heart Association (SA Heart), which represents public and private sector cardiologists, and the Eastern Cape branch of the South African Society of Psychiatrists also expressed their support for the doctors.

"Any public statement that may have been issued by staff must be viewed in the light of trying to improve conditions for all, especially the patients, in an extremely fragile system, rather than as an attempt to create problems for the Department," said SA Heart. "The action of the authorities are counterproductive and should rather focus on solving the problems than wasting time on disputes."

On Tuesday, Patricia Kopane, shadow health minister for the Democratic Alliance, said that if the Eastern Cape government failed to address the crisis, her party would request an investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission to determine its culpability in violating patients' rights.

kahnt@bdfm.co.za