21 Dec 2022

Omicron, lack of staff blamed for ongoing surgery delays

1:00 pm on 21 December 2022
Public hospitals reported more than 500 adverse events or failures in the past year.

Orthopaedic patients - those who needed operations like hip or joint replacements - were often first to be deferred. Photo: 123RF

Surgical waiting lists are getting worse in several parts of the country, despite moves by the government to try to shrink them.

The government set up a planned care taskforce earlier this year to cut the tens of thousands of people waiting for planned (elective) surgery.

In October it delivered 101 recommendations, including giving GPs more ability to be able to diagnose without the need for a specialist, cutting the number of times patients see specialists, moving patients between regions for care, and greater use of the private sector.

The situation has been made worse in the first and second Omicron outbreaks, with several hospitals cancelling most planned surgery.

Association of General Surgeons president Vanessa Blair said colleagues in some hospitals told her they were still mostly doing only acute and the most urgent planned operations, such as for cancers.

That meant that little was being done to clear the list of people needing hernia operations, hip replacements and other conditions considered non-urgent.

In some cases lists were growing, she said.

"We can't do the work - we don't have the nursing workforce, we don't have the anaesthetic tech workforce, we don't have beds in hospitals."

Some hospitals had three or four theatres not running, she said.

Orthopaedic patients - those who needed operations like hip or joint replacements - were often first to be deferred.

Christchurch surgeon John McKie, past president of the Orthopaedic Association, was regularly having his surgical lists cut. Last month he did three joint replacements in the public system when normally he would do about 15, he said.

He knew of one person considering taking out a reverse mortgage to get their surgery done privately because they were struggling to have a normal life.

McKie said about 25 percent of patients referred by GPs for an orthopaedic assessement in Christchurch would get through the triage system to be seen by a surgeon, he said.

"There are literally hundreds of people every month who don't make it into the queue to be seen and assessed for a joint replacement and that number has been steadily increasing over the past five years."

The taskforce asked hospitals to give all patients who had been waiting longer than 12 months a surgical booking by August. Te Whatu Ora said more than 3000 did not have one yet.

There is currently no available official figure on those waiting longer than four months.

RNZ has been seeking an update from Te Whatu Ora for a month, but has not received one yet.

Dr Blair said the waiting list data was probably difficult to collate because many hospitals had different criteria for who qualified for elective surgery. For example, in big city hospitals it tended to be easier to get a hernia operation.

She supported the goal of the planned care taskforce to end that postcode lottery of care, but said it was complex and would take time.

At a regional level, some hospitals were already working together to try to level the playing field, she said.

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