Like most other workers, healthcare workers have a right under law to take industrial action, within certain limits, to improve their working conditions.

However, at the core of any healthcare practice is the human being. Healthcare professionals are expected to respect the right of the patient to the best possible treatment.

Following their union’s directives, phlebotomists have, for several months, limited the number of patients they see every day. This meant turning patients away, which created a backlog of medical appointments for patients who need to take blood tests.

In an effort to partly fill this serious gap in service, the hospital management had asked some doctors to work two extra overtime hours to draw blood from cancer patients, pregnant women and other patients whose blood tests are deemed urgent.

The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses, which represents phlebotomists, is holding out for an allowance that would enable them to pursue further studies. Bizarrely, union head Paul Pace says agreement has yet to be reached and Health Minister Chris Fearne says it has.

Whatever the case, phlebotomists have been forced into an unnecessary conflict between their legal rights as workers on the one hand, and their medical principles and ethical values on the other.

What is also sure is that the dispute is taking far too long to be resolved. The right of people to full medical care in our public cli­nics and hospitals is being sacrificed to this dispute.

On the one hand, it is possible the union is being unreasonable and intransigent. On the other, the dispute exposes mismanagement of the public healthcare system.

The president of the Medical Associa­tion of Malta, Martin Balzan, has argued that “it is the responsibility of hospital management to ensure patients are not placed in harm’s way”. Doctors, he said, have had enough of “dangerous directives”.

The dispute, in fact, presents a danger to some of the most vulnerable members of society. Many serious illnesses are discovered as a result of routine blood tests requested by family doctors and consultants. Early treatment can often prevent more severe consequences and even death.

The disruption in medical services caused by COVID in the last two and a half years meant many outpatients missed their regular appointments.

Unfortunately, some may now also have missed the chance to deal with a latent health problem that could have been addressed early as a result of a routine blood test.

The sick, ageing and medically vulnerable are hardly the type to march to the ministry of health and demand they receive timely and efficient healthcare. While the phlebotomists are fighting for their supposed rights, who is fighting for the patients’ rights?

Not everyone can afford private healthcare either. The longer industrial disputes like this persist in the healthcare sector, the more harm is caused to low-income families, although, in this case, some tests can only be done at Mater Dei Hospital.

This damaging dispute, whose hidden costs in terms of lost health we will never know, shows up the need for an effective framework within which to resolve union disputes in the healthcare system.

The formulation of this process must involve all stakeholders with the aim of guaranteeing the public’s healthcare rights.

The ministry may argue that this framework already exists. However, it is the hospital management and its political masters that must ultimately be held responsible for the hardships and risks that patients are being exposed to unnecessarily.

Many patients do not have the luxury of waiting too long for a medical diagnosis. For their sake, this dispute must be resolved forthwith.

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