Even though it is a new year, there are many issues still facing the health sector, Dr Shane Reti says.
Surgical wait times across the country are currently some of the worst on record. Tens of thousands of New Zealanders are languishing on the wait lists in pain as they wait for surgery.
are many reasons why this has occurred, part of it is because of Covid lockdowns and restrictions. But the blame also falls on Health Minister Andrew Little who failed to do anything to keep the list short, such as not building more hospital ICU beds, failing to listen to the cries from the front line requesting more staff, such as nurses and removing health targets.
All these health shortfalls have affected regions in different ways, including Northland.
I asked the Health Minister to provide me the average wait times for the five most common surgical procedures for each region, with a particular interest in Northland.
What struck me was Northland has the longest wait times for many gynaecology-type procedures.
Hysterectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the womb often for painful or heavy periods, and the average wait time around the country for this is 154 days, but for Northlanders the wait time is 286 days – an extra 132 days compared to the rest of the country.
This is repeated for other gynaecology procedures with some wait time differences for Northland compared to the rest of the country being as large as 168 days.
Looking across other services, breast surgery in Northland was actually one of the best with a wait time of 40 days against the sector average of 103 days. On the downside however, Northland has the longest wait time for very disabling hip replacements with a wait time of 268 days against the national average of 172 days – a 50 per cent increase or an extra 100 days.
It is my view that these numbers are no reflection on the hard-working health teams in Northland who also battle regional issues of rurality, deprivation and underfunding. Undoubtedly one of the main issues facing the health sector now is workforce shortages. However, these figures may be useful in directing where local funding and services might be needed.
Solutions will broadly sit into three categories: workforce, targets and funding.
Building the health workforce both domestic and international is clearly the main priority. I am pleased that the Government finally listened to National and the health sector’s calls to put migrant nurses on the straight-to-residency pathway. It took a year to make this one simple immigration change that everyone wanted. How many nurses have been lost to other countries such as Australia or Canada because of the Government’s lack of urgency?
Reintroducing life-saving health targets is another priority. We introduced health targets to give providers a target to work to. This included being seen in an emergency department within six hours, being treated on a surgical wait list within four months, and more. The covid vaccine targets are recent examples of mobilising providers towards an important goal. Targets have a role to play in improving our healthcare services.
Funding is the other main lever. The Health Minister spent $486 million on a bureaucratic health restructure instead of investing in the front line. I would not have pushed forward with the health restructure while New Zealand was facing a pandemic and instead spent that money on our front-line staff.
Even though it is a new year, there are many issues still facing the health sector. I worry for the sector’s weariness and exhaustion even before winter returns. It is a crisis and we back our health professionals and are absolutely committed to delivering better health outcomes.