15 Mar 2023

Lack of anaesthetic technicians in Canterbury causing surgery delays

7:03 pm on 15 March 2023
An anaesthetist giving a patient gas in a hospital

Every day health staff see people prepping for surgery - only for it to be delayed. Photo: 123RF

The health system in Canterbury is being described as in crisis, with a major shortage of anaesthetic technicians due to problems with a toxic work environment, shortage of trained staff and overwhelming workloads.

Only 73 percent of planned surgeries are currently being completed in the region, with workforce shortages - particularly of anaesthetic technicians - highlighted as a major cause of the problem.

Christchurch resident Lynda House is one of those feeling the effects of the shortages. She is meant to have a yearly endoscopy following treatment for cancer.

With the appointment already more than a year overdue, she was surprised to be told that the best option was for her to drive from Christchurch to Timaru for the procedure.

"I wasn't very impressed, but I knew we had to go. My husband had just had a heart attack, and I don't drive that far. It's a long way."

Allister Dietschin, a healthcare assistant and NZ Nurses' Organisation delegate who works at Christchurch Hospital, said every day they see people prepping for surgery - only for it to be delayed.

"We're seeing on a daily basis someone might be fasting all day waiting to go to surgery, it gets cancelled at the end of the day. They are put on the list for the next day, and then they go through the day fasting again, and it gets cancelled - and sometimes that can be three, four, five times that the surgery is cancelled."

Frank Frizelle, a professor of colorectal surgery at the University of Otago and a surgeon at Christchurch Hospital, said similar shortages are seen all over the country - but they are compounded in Canterbury because of workplace bullying issues, highlighted in a report last year.

He said delays to surgeries had major health implications for the patients.

"We're not juggling taking people off for having surgery for their gallbladder problem weighing that up against someone with bowel cancer, we are juggling one person with cancer against another person with cancer and trying to work out who has got the biggest problem right now."

Frizelle said the problem was partly caused by a change in the training of anaesthetic technicians from an apprenticeship model to a degree.

"This is a predictable problem. We knew the training was happening. We knew the workforce was short, and no one did anything. This is a predictable problem.

"There has been a piss-poor response from senior leadership - not the management. Management have to deal with the tools they have got. The health system has really been done-over by the present leadership."

Questions asked

Richard Laing, clinical director of integrated care at the former district health board, on Wednesday faced questions before Parliament's Health Select Committee on the district's performance.

National's health spokesperson Shane Reti asked why the district waiting list was the worst it has been in years, and why anaesthetic technicians are leaving their roles in such high numbers in Canterbury.

Laing said the pattern had been evolving for sometime, and said it could be called a workforce crisis.

"It's a perfect storm sadly, on the back of the pressures of Covid, our ability to deliver the planned care, we created this waitlist - but also still contending with [business-as-usual]. There is a lot of work to be done and we are focusing very hard on it. That is the explanation as best I can give it to you."

A spokesperson for Te Whatu Ora - Waitaha Canterbury said it currently has 29 vacancies for anaesthetic technicians, and seven have resigned in the last month.

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