Neurologist shortage puts travel burden on West Coasters

6:29 pm on 5 October 2020

Neurology clinics have been cancelled for the foreseeable future on the coast and patients must now make the trip over the hill to Christchurch.

Doctor and surgeon examining x-ray film of patient's head for brain, skull or eye injury.

Specialists in Christchurch are focusing on urgent cases, meaning West Coasters with brain injuries will need to visit the city for their assessments. (file pic) Photo: 123RF

Up until recently, Canterbury DHB neurologists travelled to Greymouth four times a year to hold clinics.

But that is no longer the case.

West Coast DHB general manager Phil Wheble said a national shortage of neurologists had led to difficulty filling vacancies in Christchurch and specialists there were focusing on urgent cases.

Until that changed, they would no longer be travelling to the coast or Nelson.

"The shortage of neurologists means they've had to prioritise the care of the acutely unwell inpatients and until they have recruited more consultants, staff are not travelling to provide remote clinics."

All West Coast patients were being offered new and follow-up appointments in Canterbury or via telehealth as required, Wheble said.

"Currently, the West Coast DHB has only one new patient not booked for an appointment."

All patients needing follow-up appointments were having these arranged directly by the Canterbury DHB, Wheble said.

NZ Brain Injury Association Canterbury liaison officer Sue Kelly said people were currently waiting long times for neurologist appointments.

"People with significant issues are waiting for services and a lot of them need a neurologist's report before they access ACC or other help," Kelly said.

"A lot of providers need that before they can put services in place. So a lot of people are waiting a long time when they should be getting help to cope or recover."

The situation would be worse for people outside Christchurch in places like the West Coast, she said.

"If you have a brain injury or other neurological condition, fatigue is a big issue and it's much harder to deal with having to travel and being in an unfamiliar city; it can actually exacerbate a brain injury having to negotiate that."

It was also hard on patients' families as they tried to support them without the services they needed, Kelly said.

Patients who must travel for specialist medical appointments are entitled to claim travel and accommodation expenses from the Ministry of Health's national travel assistance scheme.

The West Coast DHB reported last month that claims were up 18 percent on budget - an increase it put down to more people claiming their entitlement, rather than more patients having to travel.

no metadata

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ on Air.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs