Surgery backlog: Union claims hospitals are trucking people around the country

By Rowan Quinn of RNZ

A 73-year-old man has been sleeping in a chair and taking constant pain medication for nine months because his hip replacement operation is overdue.

Ray is one of the tens of thousands of people the Government wants to get quicker care as it sets up a task force to address the problem of long surgical waiting lists.

He used to be very active, walking kilometres a day but now cannot walk more than 10 metres without using crutches.

He takes Panadol and codeine every five hours and has to sleep in a reclining chair.

“I just can not lie down. I wake up after an hour in real bad pain if I lie flat.”

He was initially promised surgery within three or four months but there was no sign it was coming, he said.

There are 27,000 people like Ray waiting longer than four months for surgery – triple the number before Covid-19, according to Minister of Health Andrew Little.

There were 36,000 more overdue for an appointment with a specialist just to see if surgery was an option for them.

People wait for different lengths of time depending on where they live, so the task force will take a national approach to the problem.

It is effectively one of the first jobs of Health NZ and the Māori Health Authority, which are soon to replace the country’s district health boards.

There were few details on how they might cut the lists but it could mean moving people to different parts of the country for operations or appointments, getting GPs to do more procedures, and getting private hospitals to do more public work than they already do.

The senior doctors union said, “trucking people around the country” was not the answer.

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists chief executive Sarah Dalton said the changes were just a bandaid and nothing could change without fixing the chronic shortage of doctors, nurses and technicians.

“On average we’re talking one in four, one in five posts is unfilled right across the country – so who is going to do this work?”

It was not uncommon, even without lockdowns or outbreaks, for operating theatres to be temporarily closed because there were not enough nurses to run them.

Māori are disproportionately impacted by the long waiting lists.

Taskforce member Rawiri Jansen said that was one of the problems it wanted to address.

People had been incredibly patient waiting for their procedures but that could make life very tough, he said.

An example was children waiting for dental work under general anaesthetic.

“That’s a kid that’s probably got real pain every day, probably every meal. That’s a very difficult place for a whānau to try and get through so these are really important areas for us to do a good job.”

Cancer victim's widow says more resource needed

Southland man Blair Vining was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in 2018 and given just weeks to live.

He sought treatment privately after being told there would be an eight- to 10-week wait through the public health system – a wait he would not have survived.

He died in 2019 but not before he and his wife Melissa fronted a cancer conference in Wellington where the couple said the Government had failed him and “long waiting lists for cancer treatment were cruel and killed people”.

They described making 19 desperate phone calls to seek urgent help for him when he was at his lowest ebb.

Melissa Vining said she was hopeful about the new plan to take a national approach to hospital surgery wait-lists, but more resources were needed.

“Every time there’s an announcement about another task force … I obviously still stay hopeful, but in reality we need more nurses, we need more doctors, and they need resources.

“I think that Covid has obviously exacerbated many parts of the health system, but the shortage of medical professionals is nothing new,” she told Checkpoint.

“They’re under immense pressure, which results in harm to the patient and ridiculous workloads for the health professional.”

Vining talked to patients on waitlists daily, and said the wait “really impacts on your mental health”.

“It just causes harm to people.”

Having patients travel further from their homes to get better care did not always work either, she said.

“We travelled every week for three hours and sometimes seven hours to get Blair the care he needed, and it takes an incredible toll on the patient.”

Vining said there is a clear need for more health professionals, and to look overseas if needed for relief.

“There were a large number of nurses wanting to come into the country … What we need is to get more people on the ground and immigration is one of those solutions.”

The frustration out there is palpable, she said.

“I don’t know the politicians sleep knowing that there’s this serious underfunding, under-resource that’s causing medical professionals to flee the country and causing everyday New Zealanders further harm and suffering.”

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