29 Apr 2024

'Absurd and totally unacceptable': Canterbury man has to wait a year for surgery

3:56 pm on 29 April 2024
generic hospital ward

Photo: befunky.com

A Canterbury man whose surgery has been delayed is disbelieving that a cost savings drive ordered at hospitals will not impact patient care.

Te Whatu Ora has given the 20 health districts a target to save $105 million collectively by the end of June, by reining in spending on staff, such as on overtime.

Canterbury district must save $13.3m in 10 weeks - which equated to a rate of about five percent of its operational spend in that period.

The man just received a hospital letter warning him he faced a long wait for surgery, and adding: "We sincerely apologise for this, but the circumstances are not within our control."

National MP Shane Reti at caucus run

Health Minister Shane Reti. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Health Minister Shane Reti said on Friday that "none of these cost-saving measures will impact the level of care patients receive".

The man said that seemed "incredibly naive".

His one-page letter from the hospital contained a "special notice about current waiting times for surgery".

RNZ has seen the letter and asked Te Whatu Ora how many had been sent out.

"The letter that was sent to me was obviously sent to a large number of people awaiting surgery, possibly thousands," the man said.

The letter said: "Unfortunately, the health system has been under very high pressure, in part due to the ongoing effects of Covid-19.

"We currently only have capacity to treat patients with a non-deferrable condition, such as cancer.

"When our capacity improves, there will be a large number of patients that we will need to prioritise surgery for, and this is going to take some time.

"This means the waiting time for your surgery is currently much longer than expected, and longer than you may have been indicated."

Health New Zealand chief executive Margie Apa has said hospitals now have enough staff to "live within our means" post-Covid.

"Times have moved on and that means a return to more business-as-usual practices," Apa said in a letter to health unions a few days ago, outlining the savings drive - what she called "reducing the overspend, not making cuts".

The Canterbury man said the hospital had told him directly that he would have to wait a year.

"In 2022 the wait time was 65 days. Now it is 365 days. This quite frankly is absurd and totally unacceptable," he emailed RNZ.

"I must confess that I was stunned at the state of things. My normally placid GP cut loose with language that you would not expect from a doctor."

Health Minister Dr Shane Reti said Health NZ told him the letter to the man was "a courtesy letter sent to patients whose wait time for surgery will be longer than initially expected".

"I know how frustrating this must be, which is why the government recently introduced health targets, including shorter wait times for treatment - we want 95 percent of patients to wait less than four months for elective treatment," Reti said in a statement on Monday afternoon.

"I know that our health services continue to experience pressures which is having an impact on planned care.

"However, it is important that we are ambitious in trying to achieve better health outcomes for New Zealanders and that's what these targets are aiming to do."

The last three months had driven spending over budget, Health NZ said.

Its quarterly report to December 2023 showed internal personnel costs were $100m under budget, at $5.6 billion for the first six months of the financial year, against a budget of $5.7b.

But outsourced personnel costs were $112m over budget, mostly due to overspending on external medical staff ($100m) and external management and administration personnel ($108m).

The man said he appreciated the country had to "tighten our belts".

"But we need to be reassured of a high level of competence in our nation's leadership. This saga reeks of immaturity and inexperience.

"It was completely predictable that the hospital would react in this way."

Te Whatu Ora said significant pressures due to sustained high levels of acute demand and workforce shortages in some areas was having an effect on planned care.

Director of programmes Duncan Bliss said Te Whatu Ora said the "distress current wait times may be having on people who are awaiting treatment across the country".

When specialist capacity hit its limit it always notified patients, as standard practice, that they may be waiting longer than expected, Bliss said.

Anyone who got a letter and had questions, or whose condition changed, should get in touch with Te Whatu Ora or their GP.

Speaking to Checkpoint on Monday, Health New Zealand chief executive Margie Apa said Christchurch Hospital had recently seen a large influx of patients needing care at the emergency department, which had a knock-on effect to other areas of the hospital.

"Certainly Waitaha, or Christchurch Hospital, has actually done really great work in trying to get on top of their waitlist, but it is also one of a number of hospitals that has faced some real challenges with what we call acute demand, or really high ed presentations," she said.

"Acute demand at Waitaha has certainly been a challenge that is affecting their whole hospital flow."

Staff were booking patients "as quickly as they can".

Apa said the $105 million target was a tiny proportion of the $12 billion spent on hospital services throughout Aotearoa annually.

The cost savings would not compromise patient care, she said, and Health NZ was "actually recruiting more frontline staff".

"We've had great success in recruiting over 2500 nurses and we are still recruiting doctors."

However, managers were being asked to "go back to some of those normal practices" and manage their spending on locums, overtime and outsourcing, she said.

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