Long waits for GPs forcing Kiwis to pay up to $160 at urgent care clinics

If you're finding it hard to get into your GP at the moment, you're not alone, with patients in some regions waiting up to six weeks for an appointment.

Hundreds of medical centres have closed their books to new patients entirely and the backlog is forcing many sick Kiwis to pay up to $160 at urgent care clinics, if they're unregistered.

Some New Zealanders Newshub spoke to felt it was too much to pay.

"To pay $160, people can't afford that. A lot of people don't even come to the doctor," Hamilton resident Kevin Cleaver said.

"It's like we are a number now. People feel like they are a number," another added.

The Royal New Zealand College of GPs said in some regions up to 80 percent of GP practices have now closed their books to new patients.

Mid-Central and Northland are among the hardest hit.

"At the moment we feel like there's a leak and we are mopping like mad. That's someone else's analogy. We are working and working and nothing is being done to fix the problem," said Dr Samantha Murton, president of the Royal New Zealand College of GPs.

Doctors said the problem is that people's health needs are becoming more complex. As a result, many patients are waiting five to six weeks for an appointment.

"Most of our consults for many GPs are not 15 minutes. they are 30, and there are a lot of needs out there- mental health needs, diabetes, chronic diseases and our elderly population is also increasing," Dr Murton said.

In a survey of 936 doctors released on Tuesday, two-thirds said funding, resourcing, and staffing under Te Whatu Ora is dire.

"A very small percentage of the workforce think things are going to look better in a year's time. Only 5 percent of secondary care and only 7 percent of primary care. This is very important, I think, for the Ministry [of Health] and Te Whatu Ora to know," said Dr Orna McGinn, Chair of NZ Women in Medicine.

Dr McGinn said in the first tranche of the Te Whatu Ora reforms there has been "little mention of primary care and GPs are wondering what the future looks like."

The Royal NZ College of GPs agrees primary care needs more investment and funding models need urgent attention because "Te Whatu Ora has been focussing more on hospitals."

"If we are looking at emergency departments and saying they're too busy, we will invest there. What we should be looking at is why are they busy it's because the community needs the investment," said Dr Murton.

There are many anomalies in the system right now. Newshub has learned that one GP in a small rural town at the weekend was paid $350 per hour by Te Whatu Ora to plug the gaps at their local urgent care, when ordinarily they'd get half that at their own clinic.

Te Whatu Ora said they know the workforce is under pressure, particularly for those on the frontline. They said the pressure isn't unique to New Zealand and is instead a reflection of the global shortage of health workers.

"Short-term initiatives have been put in place to address workforce issues and through the recently announced Workforce Plan, Te Whatu Ora is ready to take the opportunity to build on this to retain, grow and recruit health workers in New Zealand," a spokesperson said.

"The Workforce Plan is focussed on new training models, new ways of working and new models of care, embracing our multidisciplinary workforce.

"Longer term the plan also signals the bigger shifts we will need over time to make our health workforce sustainable, such as reducing our reliance on the global market, growing our rural health teams and building a workforce representative of our communities across New Zealand.

It will take time but we are heading in the right direction."

In terms of GPs, Te Whatu Ora acknowledged the "significant demand pressure" Northland and Midcentral are facing. Although they said there are some circumstances where some practices in these areas can enrol new patients.

There are programmes in place to improve access to primary care, they said, such as telehealth, paramedics to manage low acuity cases, and a pharmacy-based minor ailments service.