BULAWAYO – At least one major referral hospital could close its outpatient department after doctors went on strike, starting last Saturday.

In a notice to departmental heads on Monday, the United Bulawayo Hospitals (UBH) said it was also recommending discharging all patients who are not in a critical condition.

“Please be advised that there is another ongoing industrial action by the JRMOs and SRMOs at all the central hospitals since December 2, 2018,” UBH director of clinical services Dr Narcisaus Tichaona Dzvanga said in the notice.

Dzvanga added that management were recommending the closure of the outpatients department until further notice; discharge all stable patients who are considered as safe on treatment as outpatients; casualty officers to admit patients to respective disciplines in liaison with teams on call and to continue with emergency operations only.

Effectively, this means the UBH will be closed to people with health problems who visit the hospital for diagnosis or treatment, but do not require a bed or to be admitted for overnight care.

The doctors are demanding improvements to their working conditions; a review of their low salaries and also want the government to address the lack of basic medicines and equipment at health facilities countrywide.

The strike is also being felt at other major government hospitals like Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, Mpilo Central Hospital and Chitungwiza Central Hospital.

The work stoppage compounds an economic crisis that Zimbabwean banks have warned may spawn a hyper-inflationary spiral, similar to one the country experienced a decade ago.

As a shortage of foreign-exchange leaves the government unable to import basic raw materials like food and fuel, doctors are facing an “acute shortage” of medicines and equipment, according to the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors’ Association.

“Doctors are now finding it impossible to continue discharging their services in hospitals,” the association’s national committee said in the December 1 statement.

The doctors said they are under-staffed, over-worked and under-paid. A crippling fuel shortage countrywide had made commuting to work and travel costs burdensome.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights acting spokesman Norman Matara said: “As an association, we are rallying behind the doctors, especially on the issue of lack of medication and equipment in hospitals. Some hospitals had to suspend medical operations due to a lack of equipment and this is not good for patients.

“We urge the government to quickly address this issue. We are getting into the festive season and the government must act quickly to avoid mortality. The government should not wait for things to get bad for them to respond.”

The junior doctors have asked the senior doctors to join the industrial action, which could totally cripple the health delivery system in the country.