12 Jul 2022

Andrew Little: Govt responding to 'chronic staffing shortage' in healthcare

10:01 am on 12 July 2022

The Health Minister says he has heard the "despairing comments" doctors have made and insists the government is responding to the very difficult situation in healthcare.

Labour MP Andrew Little

Health Minister Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

A survey of 900 doctors by the Women in Medicine Charitable Trust found clinicians overwhelmingly agreed there was a healthcare workforce crisis.

The Trust called on political leaders to acknowledge that there was a workforce crisis and a need for immediate innovative solutions on retention, recruitment and equity in all areas of healthcare.

Health Minister Andrew Little said he acknowledged the "really tough winter" after two years of pandemic and it was continuing work to fill staffing gaps.

"We have a chronic staffing shortage and we are having one of the worst winters we have ever had because of Covid ... because of the flu season we are having at the moment," Little told Morning Report. The workforce was also stretched thinly as staff themselves were ill.

"In terms of the long-standing staff shortages the work is ongoing to full those gaps. Nothing stops in that respect - that work continues.

"I acknowledge that this is a really tough winter and this comes on the back of two tough years of responding to and dealing with Covid where the workforce has been stretched really thinly.

"I saw the quite despairing comments [in the survey] ... I get that, I hear that, I understand that."

In the last five years the government had added 5500 doctors and nurses to the public health system, made record investment in this year's Budget, and changed the health system, he said.

"I have confidence the people who are leading the system now, the initiatives that are put in place are addressing the very issues that were raised in yesterday's report."

In its letter to the Little and other leaders, the Trust said its survey discovered many doctors were working in unsafe conditions with widespread understaffing and under-resourcing. The pandemic had exposed long-standing staffing issues rather than being the cause, it said.

Comments in the survey revealed the toll this was taking on staff, GP and Trust chair Dr Orna McGinn told Checkpoint.

"It was very upsetting to read some doctors describing themselves as broken or feeling that they had to leave their jobs, some had already left their job."

There was not a single specialty which was not suffering a crisis in workforce staffing, McGinn said, and denying it was a crisis would be "gaslighting our patients" who are waiting for appointments and surgery.

Little said the government had put in additional resources to deal with many difficult situations during the pandemic.

"I was asked to declare a crisis in ED in April last year, I was asked to declare a crisis in ICU in the middle of last year. I was asked to declare a crisis when Delta broke out and people had to be stretched between vaccinations and responding to Delta, I was asked to declare a crisis when Omicron came about and we had care in the community and people being stretched thinly.

"We put additional resources into all of those things, we got through those very, very difficult situations and yes it did mean people had really tough days at work tough weeks tough months at work I get that.

"I hear what the health practitioners are saying, and we responded to it, and we continue to respond to the current situation.

Can you say there's no way out of this? Absolutely not, there is a way through it."

The survey of 911 people was evenly across primary and secondary care, and within secondary care 34 specialties were represented.

In the survey, 93.5 percent said there was "definitely" a healthcare workforce crisis in New Zealand, and another 6 percent said there was probably a crisis. Asked if there were currently any specific workforce issues in their workplace, 97 percent responded 'yes'.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs