Sunday, 18 October 2009

A health-y appetite for the finer things in life.

Posted by: Dr Thunder.

Two of the most important people in Irish health circles are Mary Harney, the Minister for Health, and Professor Brendan Drumm, the CEO of the Health Service Executive (HSE).

The HSE is, essentially, responsible for the day to day running of the health service. These are the head honchos. The buck stops with them.

For years, doctors and nurses in Ireland have felt anger at both these public figures. They have lectured us on cost cutting, and the need for increased efficiency. In fact, professor Drumm is one of the main reasons why I chose to continue working in Australia, rather than going home to Ireland. I was visiting my family around christmas two years ago, and he came on the radio at my parents' house. He was giving a rousing oration, where he told the public how the front line staff in the Irish Health Service need to look at themselves, and to work harder, and to work more efficiently.

This, to me, was a disgusting thing for a fellow doctor to say, while Irish doctors (including pregnant women) were still working shifts up to 48 hours long. I decided then that I would never work for a service with a man at the helm who was more concerned with populism and passing the buck than he was with the overworked demoralised staff doing their best in crappy conditions.

Here is a man who has lost touch with the grass roots.This is a man who gave up his job in the understaffed specialty of children's oncology to earn big money running the HSE.

Also, and this is VERY important.....professor Drumm spoke out criticising excessive bonus payments for senior HSE staff back in 2007/8. This fact will become important later.

Then there's Harney, our erstwhile Minister. She has achieved a degree of popularity recently by "taking on" the "professional elites" such as doctors, pharmacists and nurses. In fairness, I do owe her a degree of gratitude, as her treatment of junior doctors mean I no longer feel homesick in Australia, as there are as many Irish doctors working here than I've ever worked with at home.

One of Harney's favourite pastimes involves telling the public how healthcare workers are costing us too much.

So, here we have Professor Drumm telling us we're not doing enough for our money. And Harney tells us we get too much money.

Now, you would expect this pair of reformists to lead by example, if they're going to tell the workforce in a third world health system to tighten their belts and work harder.
However, in a shocking development, which will rock the very foundation of the state, it has emerged that both Harney and Drumm are.......

Talking out of their asses.

We all know that expenses and bonuses are part of both political and business life. I expect a servant of our country to be able to fly first class, so they can do their work on the plane. I expect them to stay in a hotel with a business centre when they're away. I even expect people running the health service to get a bonus when things are going well.

So, what do we know about Harney and Drumm's financial package?

Well, we know that Harney and her husband (!?!) ran up a bill of almost 70,000euro over 3 years in JUST hotel and limousine costs. That's about 23,000 euro per year. On hotels and limousines!!!!!! How often was she going away???
Then it emerges that she refuses to travel on commercial jets when going overseas. Instead, she insists on using the government jet. So, over the same period she ran up a ill of 750,000 euro on flights. That's a quarter of a million euro every year! This jet costs 7,000 euro per HOUR to run. This only the information that is available. The Freedom of Information Act in Ireland is so difficult to navigate that it is almost impossible to discover the full extent of the financial laxity within government and senior civil service ranks.

Sweet Jesus.

Now let's look at Brendam Drumm. He's just been awarded a 70,000 euro bonus for doing so well in navigating our country towards a world class health service. This is the man who gets 430,000 euro per years as a basic salary. This is a man who was so critical of HSE bonuses before they were dangled under his nose. This is a man who has presided over a HSE which treats its junior doctors as glorified slaves, and has closed children's services in our major kids hospital.

In Ireland, there are half a million people unemployed. The self employed who built the country get no social welfare when their business goes bust. Those lucky enough to get some government support are entitled to 204euros per week. There are little children who desperately need spinal surgery, and have been told we can't afford the service.

I don't know how these people sleep at night. But I guess the presidential suite at the Waldorf,or a flatbed sleeper on a government jet helps.

Dr. Thunder.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

So, will that swine flu vaccine give my kid mumps or what?

Posted by: Dr. Thunder.

I've just had my umpteenth conversation with a concerned parent about the swine flu vaccine. I'm starting to sound like a broken record now.
Parents have every right to ask questions, when we consider what's been in the media, regarding this jab. It's a minefield of information, and it's difficult enough for those of us who work in healthcare to get our heads around it.

I get asked a lot of questions about this vaccine. Some sensible. Some truly bizarre. I've had the crackpot conversations already, with the truly paranoid. We discussed mandatory vaccinations, and the big pharma conspiracies.

"This vaccine has been made to give us all swine flu"

"This vaccine has been made to stimulate the world economy"

"I've heard this virus was released accidentally from an American army lab, and they're trying to wipe it out, so unfriendly countries dn't get their hands on it".

These people must live truly terrifying lives, if they're so convinced that government is out to get them.

At the normal-ish end of the paranoid spectrum, I've had some unusual questions. But nothing prepared me yesterday for a previously sensible parent asking me, in hushed tones, whether I thought there was a risk of Anthrax from this vaccine!!!!!!!!

Jesus H Christ!

"It's just that I read it on a website".

I tried to keep it calm. But I'm sure my face cracked a little, as the laughter tried to escape. I reassured Harvey's dad, and he was accepting of my explanation.

Having said that, the concerns expressed to me have been, by and large, fairly reasonable. And those that are a bit crazy, have generally come from respectable looking websites, which are essentially conspiracy theory sites, or are peddling alternative meds. There is something ironic about these people claiming a big pharma conspiracy on hand, and trying to sell you expensive vitamin D "anti-flu" tablets at extortionate prices on the other

I feel I should put up a list of the common concerns here, and make an attempt to address them. Cleverer people than me might want to add some extra info too.

1) This vaccine was rushed through the safety checking process: There's no doubt that the swine flu vaccine was made quickly. If there was a new vaccine on the market. it would take years to reach the market. But the swine flu jab isn't really new.
Every year, we have different strains of flu circulating. We usually detect these many months in advance, and make a vaccine against them. The way we do this is by taking a vaccine mixture that is shown to be safe, and adding in the virus particle that is circulating this year. The virus particle is the bit that immunises you against a specific strain of flu. It is a part of the surface of the virus that your body will recognise. It is not live virus. This year one of the strains of flu is swine flu. We didn't know about it early enough to include it in the yearly flu vaccine, so we've had to make a new one. But it's almost identical to the seasonal flu vaccine that people get every year. It is very likely to be included in the normal flu vaccine next year.

2) I don't need it as I don't have an underlying medical illness: Depending on the country we look at, we're seeing 30-50% of swine flu deaths and admissions to ICU in groups with no risk factors. Plus, vaccines are not designed to protect individuals. They're designed to protect communities. If you don't catch it, you can't pass it onto a baby, or someone else who will be less able to fight it.

3) I read about it making people sick in 1976: There was swine flu in the USA in 1976, and there was a vaccination programme. About 40 million people were vaccinated, and 25 died from Guillain-Barre syndrome. This is true. But when you look closely at the figures, there were about 1 case per million people more than would have been expected in a normal year. That's still high, but it's not a huge risk. No cause has ever been found for these cases. But vaccines weren't as pure as they are now, and this is thought to have been a contributory factor.
Bear in mind, though, a good chunk of those people would survie today, as GBS is better treated. Also remember that influenza infection is a big cause of GBS.

4) This is only a mild disease: True. In most cases. 1 in 200 people who get swine flu end up in hospital. A third of these end up in ICU. Usually for about 2 weeks. 1 in 1000 patients die from it. Though in some countries this figure is much higher. If 1 million people catch swine flu in Ireland, that's 1,000 deaths we're facing, and about 5,000 hospitalisatoins. That will wreak havoc on an overstretched health service this winter.

Everyone has their own choice to make. It's not for me to tell anyone what to do. But, whatever your decision, make it based on facts. Speak to your doctor or nurse. Don't look at the quack websites.

I had mine the other day. Had a bit of nausea the next day. But otherwise I was fine.

Feel free to comment. Feel free to disagree. But please don't scaremonger.

Dr. Thunder.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Who are the trade unions kidding?

Posted by: Dr Thunder.

I think most public servants are underpaid.

We all have the chance to work in the private sector, for more money and better conditions. We stayed with the public sector during the boom times, when all kinds of people were earning crazy money in the private sector.

We have had to listen to the private sector telling us we were fools for staying put, for the sake of our patients, when there was big money to be made elsewhere. Now we have to listen to them telling us that we're overpaid and that our perks are too lucrative.

I think, to an extent, the public sector have to suck it up. You take your risks in the private sector. When times are good, you earn big. But when things go bad, they go VERY bad.

I have to say, though, the Irish trade union, SIPTU, have left me speechless recently. This trade union represents various public sector healthcare workers. Mostly nurses and paramedics. Oviously, these two groups do a vital job. A job that most private sector workers wouldn't have touched during the boom years in Ireland. But they stick with it, loking after the most vulnerable memers of society, under very trying conditions.

They don't get a Christmas bonus. There was no free staff night out at Christmas for them. there is no health insurance.

So, now their trade union has asked for a 3.5% pay rise for these workers.

For those of you reading this from overseas, Ireland is in trouble. I mean BIG trouble. Think Iceland-Lite. I know there's a global recession. But Ireland is suffering a global recession, plus a national recession. There's just no money left. I wrote recently about how children's surgical services are being closed down because the piggy bank is empty. Unemployment is skyrocketing, and hundreds of thousands of familes are trying to survive on their weekly 204Euro social welfare payment, in one of the most expensive countries in the world.

The people are fed up. They've seen politicians spend crazy money on lavish expenses, and they've seen the bankers bailed out with huge financial packages, while the self-employed don't even qualify for the dole when their businesses fold.

The dole office is so busy, it's taking 3 months for applications to be processed.

This is not the time to be asking for a pay rise.

Healthcare workers continuously come out top of public opinion trustworthiness polls. There's a good reason for this. Healthcare workers are supposed to care more about the people than about money. I think that still holds true. But I think the trade union are trying to play hardball with the government.

But how can we expect the public to have any respect for us if we're demanding pay rises in the current climate? The cost of everything is going down, so it's difficult to justify on the basis of inflation.

For a nurse on 35k per annum, a 3.5 pay rise works out at about 20 euro per week extra, before tax. That is not worth alienating the public for.

I hope common sense prevails. I hope our nurses and paramedics are rewarded when the economy turns a corner. I, and they, know that won't happen, though.

But, in the run up to a very lean Christmas for most of the country, it's time to put the begging bowl away for now.

Dr. Thunder.