In the 18 months to July, New Zealand lost at least 80 specialists the equivalent of the senior medical workforce of a regional hospital the size of Hutt, Hawke's Bay or Palmerston North.
While district health boards say claims of "a mass exodus" are exaggerated, and many of those doctors were short-term employees, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) warns New Zealand is facing an unprecedented medical workforce crisis.
Executive director Ian Powell said senior doctors in Australia were paid 50 to 100 per cent more than their Kiwi counterparts.
On top of that, they have all the extras provided, including better on-call support and more registrars to spread the load.
Many of those who had just finished their registrar training were moving straight across the Tasman to take up their first specialist appointments, he said.
Numerous health workforce reports an estimated 43 since 2000 have warned of shortages: one estimate puts the shortfall at up to 3618 doctors within 15 years.
Senior doctors have been locked in bitter contract negotiations over pay and conditions for 17 months and ASMS members are considering industrial action for the first time.
The union's executive director, Ian Powell, said a national ballot on industrial action was "still the most likely scenario".
The gaps left by departing doctors were having a "destabilising" effect, he said.
In July, Wellington lost two vital children's specialists to Australia the head of paediatrics and one of only two paediatric oncologists, which forced the transfer of child cancer patients to Christchurch and Auckland. Three anaesthetics staff stepped down from positions in March, threatening the hospital's ability to train anaesthetists. One subsequently withdrew his resignation.
Capital and Coast District Health Board said, at the time, the hospital had employed more senior doctors in the past year than had left, and had increased the number of positions.
The board's lead negotiator, Dr Nigel Murray, has accused the union of "scaremongering". The number of doctors leaving New Zealand had not changed in the past 10 years, he said, while the number of specialist senior medical officers had gone up by almost 300 since 2000, he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News