A 73-year-old man has been sleeping in a chair and taking constant painkillers for nine months because his hip replacement surgery is overdue.
Ray is one of tens of thousands of people the government wants to get to care faster as it sets up a task force to tackle long surgical waiting lists.
He used to be very active, covering miles a day, but now he can’t walk more than 10 meters without using crutches.
He takes panadol and codeine every five hours and has to sleep in a recliner.
“I just can’t lie down. I wake up after an hour with really bad pain if I’m lying flat.”
He was initially promised surgery within three or four months, but there was no indication it was coming, he said.
There are 27,000 people like Ray waiting more than four months for surgery – triple the number before Covid-19, according to Health Minister Andrew Little.
There were another 36,000 late for an appointment with a specialist just to see if surgery was an option for them.
People wait different times depending on where they live, so the task force will take a national approach to the problem.
It is effectively one of the first jobs of Health NZ and the Māori Health Authority, which will soon replace the country’s district health boards.
There were few details on how they could reduce the lists, but it could mean moving people to different parts of the country for operations or appointments, forcing GPs to perform more procedures and forcing hospitals private sector to carry out more public works than they already do.
The senior doctors’ union said ‘trucking people across the country’ was not the answer.
The chief executive of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, Sarah Dalton, said the changes were just a band-aid and nothing could change without addressing the chronic shortage of doctors, nurses and technicians.
“On average we’re talking about one in four positions, one in five positions going unfilled across the country – so who’s going to do this job?” she says.
It was not uncommon, even in the absence of shutdowns or epidemics, for operating rooms to be temporarily closed because there were not enough nurses to operate them.
Maori are disproportionately affected by long waiting lists.
Rawiri Jansen, a member of the task force, said this was one of the issues he wanted to address.
People had been incredibly patient while waiting for their procedures, but it could make life very difficult, he said.
An example was children awaiting dental treatment under general anesthesia.
“He’s a child who probably suffers every day, probably every meal. It’s a very difficult place for a whānau to go through, so those are really important areas for us to do a good job.”
Widow of cancer victim says more resources are needed
Southland man Blair Vining was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in 2018 and has just weeks to live.
He sought treatment privately after learning there would be an eight to 10 week wait in the public health system – a wait he reportedly did not survive.
He died in 2019, but not before he and his wife Melissa hosted a cancer conference in Wellington where the couple said the government had let them down and “the long waiting lists for cancer treatment cancer were cruel and killed people”.
They described making 19 desperate phone calls asking for urgent help for him when he was at his lowest.
Melissa Vining said she was hopeful about the new plan to take a national approach to hospital surgery waiting lists, but said more resources were needed.
“Every time there’s an announcement about another task force… I obviously still have hope but in reality we need more nurses, we need more doctors and they need resources.
“I think Covid has obviously exacerbated many parts of the healthcare system, but the shortage of healthcare professionals is nothing new,” she said. Checkpoint.
“They are under immense pressure, resulting in harm to the patient and a ridiculous workload for the medical professional.”
Vining spoke to patients on the waiting lists daily and said the wait “really impacts your mental health.”
“It only hurts people.”
Getting patients to travel farther from home to get better care hasn’t always worked either, she said.
“We traveled for three hours and sometimes seven hours every week to get Blair the care he needed, and it has an incredible impact on the patient.”
Vining said there was a clear need for more medical professionals and to seek overseas if necessary for relief.
“There were a lot of nurses who wanted to come to the country… What we need is to have more people on the ground and immigration is one of those solutions.”
The frustration is palpable, she said.
“I don’t know if politicians sleep knowing that there is this severe underfunding, underresourcing that is driving healthcare professionals out of the country and causing further harm and suffering to New Zealanders on a daily basis. “