28 Jan 2022

Omicron outbreak may leave rural hospitals precarious staffing levels

9:00 am on 28 January 2022

Rural communities could be left without local medical services for a time when Omicron hits.

Inside Hospital generic

Rural GP Network clinical director Jeremy Webber says it is possible whole departments in small hospitals would have to be shut down if too many staff could not work. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Staffing is precarious in many small towns - and doctors, nurses or key administration workers will have to stop working if they get the virus.

Hospitals have predicted 30 percent of their staff could be off with Omicron at the height of the outbreak.

Rural doctor Jeremy Webber said it was hard to gauge the impact that would have on very small hospitals, which tended not to have staff to spare.

"What happens when everybody falls over? Because that is a real risk in some of our smaller communities in New Zealand," he said

Dr Webber is the clinical director of the Rural GP Network and works at Taupō Hospital.

It was possible whole departments in small hospitals would have to be shut down if too many staff could not work, he said.

"In Taupō Hospital for example, overnight we've only got one doctor covering the whole hospital, two nurses in the emergency department and so, there's a really limited number in terms of your ability to be able to flex and accommodate if people get crook," he said.

He hoped the lower severity of Omicron and the higher vaccination rates in the population would help avoid critical shortages, but his rural colleagues were waiting for the outbreak "with some trepidation".

It was likely urgent care would always be available but the rest was a little uncertain, he said.

Tairāwhiti District Health Board chief executive Jim Green said Gisborne Hospital could end up taking patients from the rural Te Puia Springs Hospital - but also had to make its own plans.

If staffing shortages got serious, it would make cuts to planned care, freeing doctors and nurses work elsewhere.

Royal NZ College of GPs medical director Bryan Betty said GP clinics were also at risk and that could compound the problem.

"Smaller towns are very reliant on general practice for their frontline medical care. If they are to close or to have to downgrade their service as a result of Covid that would put very big pressure on any local rural hospitals," he said.

Some city clinics, especially with a large vulnerable population, could also feel the squeeze, he said.

Even though most people would be caring for themselves at home, there would be a lot of anxiety and many would still want to be in touch with their GP.

The DHB and MInistry of Health needed to come up with a plan to help GPs under pressure which would in turn ease demand on hospitals, he said.

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