Hospital doctors around New Zealand are charging grieving families for cremation certificates and spending the proceeds on parties and Sky TV.
In some areas they charge up to $90 in what doctors call "ash cash", for just a few minutes' work.
Tens of thousands of dollars are collected annually, on top of their salaries, and the bonus revenue is often used to fund junior doctors' social club events. It is considered a perk of the job.
But after an investigation by The Dominion Post, DHBs are now scrambling to scrap the archaic practice.
In an email obtained by the newspaper, Deborah Powell, national secretary of the Resident Doctors' Association, advised regional representatives that ash cash perks may soon cease.
"We have been approached by the DHBs who . . . have received an [Official Information Act] request from the media concerning the payment of what is colloquially termed ash cash. All the DHBs now wish to stop payment," she wrote.
The association represents those doctors who charge ash cash fees. She said members in DHBs where the fees paid for, "as an example, Sky in the [doctors'] lounge", would need to contact their local DHB advocates to sort out their finances.
Quite what qualifies this story to be the lead item on the Dom-Post website this morning is anyone's guess. It's certainly not news, and the practise was going on we we worked in the hospital system in the early 1980's.
No individual benefits from "ash cash"; the money is generally paid into a central fund. And the "few minutes work" that the Dom-Post refers to is often somewhat more than that. If a patient dies whilst the junior doctor is not rostered on, they have to take time out of ward duties etc to visit the hospital's mortuary, identify the body and certify life extinct. If the deceased had a pacemaker or similar device fitted, the doctor is required to ensure then certify that it has been removed; this requirement was bought in around the time that we had some involvement in death certification, after a body exploded in a cremator.
Junior doctors are renowned for their gallows humour, and after six years at medical school, who can blame them? One only has to watch a programme like Grey's Anatomy to see that. So the term "ash cash" has been around for at least 30 years, and probably far longer. In our days the going rate was $15, but inflation has clearly taken care of that.
The rights and wrongs of "ash cash" can be debated ad nauseum, but we reckon that it is a legitimate charge for the extra work that a doctor certifying a body for cremation needs to do. But it's hardly earth-shattering news deserving of top billing.