General surgeons have 'grave concerns' about state of New Zealand's health workforce

General surgeons have written an open letter to Health Minister Andrew Little expressing what they say are "grave concerns" about the state of the health workforce. 

They said some hospitals are essentially just doing acute trauma and cancer surgery, with the number of cancelled planned surgeries ballooning. 

Health New Zealand said the cancellations haven't changed significantly in recent months, but those on the frontline say that's not the reality. 

Dr Rowan French, the president of the New Zealand Association of General Surgeons, is worried. He's doing a fraction of normal planned surgery amid an exodus of key staff. 

"A real crisis developing in the workforce that we've never seen before," he said.

He's penned a letter to the Minister saying surgeons are "gravely concerned".

"Most of the hospitals are really just doing acute surgery and cancer surgery and probably a little bit of cardiac. But all the rest of the planned care surgery just isn't getting done," Dr French said.

In the 11 months to June 26, 13,410 planned surgeries were cancelled or deferred. But Health New Zealand said the number of patients deferred or cancelled "hasn’t significantly changed in recent months".

"I don't think any of us buy that," Dr French said.

"I personally do a lot of non-cancer surgery, bariatric surgery. I would have normally done about 20 lists so far this year in the public system and I've done about three."

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It's the same for the orthopaedics department. Over the past two months, Christchurch orthopaedic surgeon John McKie would normally have completed 16 elective or planned joint, foot or ankle operations.

"I've only done one primary elective joint replacement. Other lists have been occupied dealing with acute trauma or lists have been cancelled," he said.

They've been cancelled due to staff shortages, and it's not just the lack of nurses causing problems. 

"We need anaesthetists, we need nurses, we need anaesthetic technicians. We need the whole kit and caboodle."

Dr McKie's been a surgeon for 28 years. 

"The extent of the problems and pressures now are probably as great as it's ever been."

In their letter, general surgeons have suggested:

  • nurses are offered free meals, parking, and childcare
  • they want fees-free nursing training
  • cancellation of student loans in lieu of work
  • add nurses and allied health professionals to the top of the immigration and residency list.

Health New Zealand said this year's COVID outbreak is to blame for planned care delays - surgeons think otherwise. 

"The first step in any problem is acknowledging it, isn't it? I think to keep suggesting it's a winter problem, it's a problem due to flu and COVID when what we're seeing on the ground is permanent vacancies. Not sick leave, permanent vacancies," Dr French said.

Health Minister Andrew Little said he's received the letter and will respond. 

He said the health workforce has been under pressure for "a very long time" and that the system will change. 

Health New Zealand told Newshub a "comprehensive plan" is being developed to improve equity of access to planned care and reduce waiting lists. The national plan to tackle the issue will be led by colorectal surgeon Andrew Connolly and be finalised by September.