Medical transcriptionists at Canberra Hospital fear for their jobs after being told their roles will essentially be replaced by a computer program.
That change is scheduled to take place in less than two months at the same time a new patient records system – the Digital Health Record – is slated to go live.
Around 15 staff are employed as medical transcriptionists and all of them are women, many of them older. They work mainly from home where they transcribe doctors’ verbally recorded patient notes into letters which are then sent out to patients.
Vanessa* is among them and she’s angry at how her team has been treated in recent weeks.
“We don’t matter,” she said. “We’re mostly older women and it seems like health is all about the doctors and the health professionals … they are dismissive of our role.”
Three weeks ago, the team was told a voice-to-text software would be replacing their jobs when the DHR goes live in November.
“We were sent an email telling us there would be a compulsory meeting with Human Resources about our ‘structure and function’,” the transcriptionist, who does not wish to be named, told Region.
“So, effectively a restructure even though they wouldn’t actually use that word.”
At the meeting, the team was allegedly given conflicting accounts about the new software and how it would impact their work. Vanessa said they were first told management hadn’t realised the new software didn’t have the ability to do manual transcription but were later told they had accepted the software knowing that.
She’s unimpressed with the lack of clarity around what their work will be after November and concerned about a lack of time for consultation to take place.
“We’ve only got until 3 October and it seems the only thing we can comment on is where we can move to,” she said.
“They are proposing to move us into the Health Information Services but we have no clue what they do, who they are, where they sit, or what the deal is – yet we are expected to make a decision.”
Since learning of the impending change, Vanessa has heard claims of a pilot program already underway in the largest of the hospital departments – oncology and renal. She’s upset by a lack of consultation, saying no one had thought to ask anyone from the transcriptionist team how it might affect them.
She’s worried about how an automated transcription service will operate given the complexities of the recordings the hospital manages.
“One of the things that happens is the doctor may be referring to ‘Mary’ as ‘he’ or they might have got the wrong Mary, for example,” she said.
“It’s just sort of that second pair of eyes. Words like hypertension instead of hypo-tension can also cause problems.
“We also deal with doctors who have English as their second language and it takes a bit of work for us to translate it into something readable. You can also tell when the registrars have been in a rush because they zoom through their letters so quickly and swallow their words and our experience helps us work out what they mean.”
In response to Region’s requests for comment, a Canberra Health Services spokesperson said no medical transcriptionists would lose their jobs as a result of the transition to the DHR.
But Vanessa said that doesn’t mean the government can tell her – and the other 14 transcriptionists – what their jobs will be in the future.
“It doesn’t feel like they value our skills. We just get more and more surprises and no one can give us any answers, they just send us the EAP,” she said.
CHS said it would continue to work with affected staff to understand and respond to their concerns.
For Vanessa, that rings hollow.
The CPSU has also slammed the government for a lack of consultation with workers and no consideration for patient wellbeing.
Regional secretary Maddy Northam described replacing highly trained specialised transcriptionists with an automated system as a “risky business”.
“Our members understand medical terms and interactions and translate this into letters that Canberrans receive every day with critical health information,” she said.
Name has been changed.