25 Oct 2022

Ōtautahi doctor says people waiting four hours in urgent care clinic

10:06 am on 25 October 2022
Doctor using stethoscope in examining a small boy

Earlier this month, the Royal New Zealand College of GPs had already warned there was an enormous struggle for patients to get bookings nationwide. (file photo) Photo: 123rf

A Christchurch doctor says primary care wait times are the worst he has seen.

Last week, a person died after they left Christchurch Hospital's emergency department (ED) during what Te Whatu Ora Waitaha described as "a very busy period".

They later returned and were admitted to intensive care but died the next day.

GP Angus Chambers said people were struggling to enrol into medical centres or get appointments at his clinic.

"Because we've got an urgent care centre, we see both our own patients as drop-ins but also people from the surrounding district," Dr Chambers said.

"We're getting wait times of four or five hours at the moment. We've never ever had that before, and it's extremely stressful for everybody really, patients and our staff."

He believed it was a national problem.

In June, a woman died after she left Middlemore Hospital's ED when she was told it would be hours before she could be seen.

She returned in an ambulance a few hours later and died in intensive care the next day.

Dr Chambers said the overwhelming pressure on emergency departments at the moment stemmed from successive governments failing to act on an impending GP shortage.

"For decades, the GP workforce has been ageing alongside the population ... not enough people are being trained and recruited into the general practice, so it's been pointed out [for years] that as the older cohort retires, numbers of general practitioners are going to drop," he said.

"It's no surprise to anybody, except it does seem to have caught our decision makers on the hop."

There had been a number of government reviews, committees and taskforces but no tangible changes, Dr Chambers said.

"[The government] actually just needs to look at the resourcing. Solutions have been proposed, they're there. They need to act on it.

"We could address the difference in pay for primary and secondary care for those doctors and nurses. That would be very, very helpful [if pay equity was achieved] and that could be done straight away, but the decision makers lack the will to do it."

He said there was a vicious cycle in the industry with some GPs looking for other jobs to get away from the immense pressure, reducing the pool of GPs further.

Earlier this month, Minister of Health Andrew Little announced plans to pay junior GPs up to 23 percent more in a bid to help boost the number of doctors in primary healthcare and bring their salaries into line with their hospital counterparts.

A day prior to the announcement, 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.

Mental health may be also be a contributing factor

Doctor Jeremy Baker is also an Ōtautahi-based GP who has a special interest in mental health.

For GPs on the front line, the strain was close to breaking point and it had been like that for a number of months, Dr Baker said.

He wondered if heightened stress and concerns caused by the pandemic was fuelling higher primary care demand too.

"In my general practice, we'll see a number of illnesses that they're worth seeing a GP for but not necessarily requiring the urgency that people are putting on it," Baker said.

With lockdowns and Covid-related disruptions putting more people on edge, there had also been an increased demand for mental health services, he said.

There was room out in the communities to be giving people more mental health awareness, he said.

"Following the Canterbury earthquakes, there was more emphasis on training the communities ... I'm fond of training the community in what you might call mental health 101, where people are gaining capability to talk to others in a meaningful way without distressing them."

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