29 Apr 2023

Health system gaps putting elderly at risk, Aged Care Commissioner says

8:55 am on 29 April 2023
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Aged Care Commissioner Carolyn Cooper says there are gaps right across the health system. Photo: Photo / 123RF

The Government's aged care watchdog is calling for a complete overhaul of the health system when it comes to treating older people.

Figures provided to RNZ by the Health Ministry Manatū Hauora show care homes have sent 4795 "section 31 notifications" to the Director-General of Health since April last year, advising they did not have enough nurses to ensure patients were safe.

According to the Aged Care Association, about 1200 care home beds have closed since the middle of last year, due to nurse shortages and funding shortfalls.

The Aged Care Commissioner, Carolyn Cooper, said it was not just about a lack of care home beds - there were gaps and blockages right across the system.

"The whole system needs to be looked at - it's not just about beds in resthomes but about options: primary care and prevention to focus on keeping people well at home, and if they have conditions that can be managed at home, they can stay at home, access acute care when they need it and have support in place when they return home."

RNZ has previously revealed on March 26 there were 138 hospital patients - mainly elderly - waiting to be transferred to other facilities. More than 40 percent had been waiting longer than two weeks.

"Older people are the biggest users of the health system and there needs to be a really clear plan to ensure that the critical partners such as primary care, community care and aged residential care can actually work with the public system to ensure older people receive that health service they need," Cooper said.

Workforce shortages were the underlying problem everywhere, she said.

"We need to look at predictive workforce needs too. That includes immigration settings, which have improved, but also training New Zealanders to do this work and encouraging them to stay."

While the Government had recently made moves to increase pay for nurses in the community to close the gap with hospitals, pay parity was "still a massive challenge", she said.

"In some cases there's a $20,000 difference for those working in a public hospital compared with resthomes."

Twenty percent of New Zealanders would be aged over 65 in less than 10 years' time, so planning could not be deferred any longer, she said.

"We need to all be really concerned about this, because older people actually have the right to health services wherever and whenever they need it, and at the moment, that seems to be a real challenge."

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