3 Oct 2022

Wait to see GP taking up to six weeks, College of GPs says

5:00 pm on 3 October 2022
Doctor using stethoscope in examining a small boy

The Royal New Zealand College of GPs says the country does not have enough general practitioners and needs to be training a lot more. Photo: 123rf

The length of time people wait to see a health professional is blowing out and more people may end up in hospital as a result, the College of GPs says.

The Royal New Zealand College of GPs said there was an enormous struggle for patients to get bookings nationwide, with reports some clinics were full until next month and emergency departments overflowing.

Dr Samantha Murton

Dr Samantha Murton Photo: Royal New Zealand College of GPs

College president Samantha Murton told Midday Report the country does not have enough doctors; and many primary care practices were above capacity and unable to take on new or casual patients.

She said it was tough at present with delays in obtaining appointments ranging from two weeks to six weeks.

She said reasons included the build-up of reparatory illnesses over winter and then a hangover from the Covid-19 pandemic with people who had delayed seeking advice for other conditions now expecting to see a doctor.

"[They're] now wanting to have care and sometimes those things become acute."

Dr Murton said with regards to the existing workforce, the country had not been training enough GPs for a long time.

"Our population of GPs has aged over that time. So we are now seeing people who are retiring, as well and with Covid, and the difficulties that we've faced and just how hard the job got at times, has meant that probably more of our GPs have retired over the last couple of years than we had expected.

"But the numbers have always been short and they need to change tomorrow which is hard."

GPs provided complex medical care and treatments in the community and their work also prevented people having to go into hospital.

"The risk is that if people can't be seen then they will have diseases that progress and won't be able to be treated so easily."

Asked what she would do with a magic wand for the health sector, Dr Murton said the numbers being trained at medical schools needed to increase.

Also while training, medical students should be allowed to practise in the community but that would put extra pressure on medical centres so that supervision could be provided. More overseas doctors needed to be allowed into the country which was starting to happen.

As well, GPs needed to be valued for their mahi because they were feeling overworked.

"The capacity is not there and we don't have the ability to change things. So it's hard to feel that you're valued when you're in a situation that you can't change and it looks like things aren't changing fast enough for you."

Extra pressure in some regions

Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand agreed the health system was experiencing acute demand, despite the fall in Covid-19 cases.

"Across the motu, emergency department attendances and hospital admissions from ED have risen in recent weeks," a spokesperson said in a statement.

"Similarly, hospital occupancy and the number of patients with a long length of stay have remained high. General practices and urgent care clinics are also experiencing increased demand for acute care, and staff sickness coupled with fatigue from the pandemic is having an impact."

There were some areas of the country where there were extra workforce pressures.

"Wherever possible, we are looking at other workforces to work alongside our clinical kaimahi [staff] such as our growing kaiawhina [health support worker] teams."

Last month, the government announced some measures to train more health workers domestically and bring more nurses and doctors into the country to help address immediate workforce pressures.

There were also other initiatives under way nationally to recruit overseas trained health professionals while making it easier for nurses to move to New Zealand to work.

Covid-19 was continuing to make a difficult job harder because of the precautions staff had to take to prevent its spread, including using PPE, social distancing, and testing, among other public health measures, the spokesperson said.

"All of this builds in additional time required to perform tasks in comparison to the pre-Covid-19 working environment."

The work of all health staff was valued, Health New Zealand said.

"Te Whatu Ora certainly recognises the effect on the system and we are working with regions to respond. Pressures are being addressed by focusing on hospital flow, prioritising urgent care, and increasing regional co-ordination to better deliver services."

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