Hundreds waiting for planned surgeries in Wellington and the Hutt Valley will have to wait even longer. Capital & Coast and Hutt Valley DHBs are deferring the vast majority of planned care for another four weeks as both hospitals struggle with demand and never-before-seen staff absences.
A letter sent to clinical staff and obtained by RNZ shows the recent deferral is an extension to an earlier cutback in planned services that ran for two weeks due to unprecedented staff absences, coupled with a "very high level of vacancies" and exacerbated by high demand and winter illness.
"There has been no change to the challenges our services are facing and [we] do not expect them to abate for the foreseeable future," the letter, signed by DHB Chief Medical Officer John Tait and Director Provider Services Joy Farley, said.
Over the next four weeks, the DHBs will defer the vast majority of planned care where it is safe to do so. The DHBs say non-deferrable care - like cancer and paediatric care - would continue as normal.
Both DHBs declined an interview and would not say how many procedures would be impacted.
Wellington orthopaedic surgeon Dr Peter Devane estimated about 150 orthopaedic patients would miss out on surgery with no planned care over the next four weeks.
For the current situation in the Wellington region, the total number of patients affected "would be in the hundreds, if not the thousands."
"I'm one of about 90 surgeons in Wellington and all of us would be affected in some capacity across the board."
He was unsure how long the current suspension would continue, or when people would be rescheduled.
"We have a large backlog of patients, even now, from the large pool of patients that weren't given treatment or surgery during Covid, and we're looking at ways of trying to tackle that,
but things like this are really adding to the mix and making it more difficult."
"I don't like it, but no one wants to do this. I know all the management and they are as unhappy as we are but it's something that's been forced on us because there are simply no nurses to look after the patients," he said.
"If I did a hip replacement tomorrow there wouldn't be any nurses on the ward that could look after them," Dr Devane said.
Devane said the problem was a result of years of under-resourcing which has come to a head because of Covid-19.
Increases in money going into the health system had simply not kept up with the need for planned care, he said. The load of acute or urgent patients in public hospitals had gone up while planned services had probably stayed the same, or even decreased, despite increased resources.
One of the biggest problems was the lack of nurses recruited from overseas, he said.
Junior doctors in the Wellington region were anxious and under pressure as hospitals struggle with demand, the Resident Doctor's Association national secretary Dr Deborah Powell said.
There were not enough staff to deal with both acute and planned care, making it tough for doctors, she said.
"The whole situation is extremely concerning. I mean Hutt slightly more so than Capital and Coast, they are having more difficulty meeting demand.
"[Doctors] are tired, there are no two ways about it, they're anxious. No one wants to make a mistake."