Job insecurity appears to be undermining attempts to shore up the country's chronically pressured forensic pathology services.
The Justice Ministry claims there is no evidence of a crisis, but workers say they are close to breaking point. They are working 12-day fortnights, up to 70 hours a week, prioritising complex criminal work while trying to keep up with the regular autopsy work they share with hospital pathologists.
Despite that pressure, Auckland District Health Board has appeared reluctant to offer permanent positions to attract more forensic pathologists from overseas.
Although it had recently appointed a new pathologist in Auckland, who was due to start in the next few months, it is understood interviews for that position might still be going on.
The DHB is locked in long-running negotiations over its contract with the Justice Ministry, which is itself caught up in a start-stop overhaul of coronial funding that began years ago.
Dr Michael Dray of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia said the uncertainty was taking its toll.
"Because of the rejig of what was described as the Coronial Procurement Project, the contracts were all made quite short term until the Ministry of Justice sorted out exactly what it wanted and for how long," he said.
At least three more staff needed
The six doctors at the forensic pathology service said they needed another three staff members just to cope.
In fact, their numbers have now dropped to just four temporarily: one person is away and an accident on Thursday meant the two forensic pathologists in Christchurch and Palmerston North would have to cover Wellington on alternate weeks.
Dr Dray said the pressure would inevitably spill over onto the country's 30 other pathologists, who work mostly in hospitals. But their first priority was doing tests on samples from live patients, not dead people, so they could not always help out.
Only two new forensic pathologists have been trained nationwide in the past 10 years.
Two more, one funded through the DHB, and another through a laboratory, are at the start of their 5 to 6 years of training now.
That very long lead-in time, and the off-putting nature of short-term contracts to doctors who are internationally in demand, meant no end was in sight to the creeping crisis, Dr Dray said.
"There's no sense of resolution to the discussions that are going on between the forensic pathologists and the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry ... say that that's going to be all finished by early next year, but I'm not quite sure on what basis they expect that to happen."
Auckland DHB said that as well as its contract negotiations with the Justice Ministry, the two were working closely on long-term plans, which included attracting medical staff to the profession and the training of junior medical staff.