Te Whatu Ora admits up to 400 patients waiting over a year for surgery despite target of zero

Lauren Crimp for RNZ

Te Whatu Ora has admitted hundreds of people had been waiting more than a year for surgery at the end of 2023, despite a target of zero.

The organisation is being questioned at the Health Select Committee today as part of its annual review.

Labour health spokesperson Dr Ayesha Verrall grilled its executives over its plans to reduce surgical waitlists - and chief executive Margie Apa acknowledged it did not hit its targets.

"Our goal was to have no one waiting [for more than a year] by December, and we can confirm that by December, we had 300 or 400 that were still waiting, but we need to confirm that.

"Given the volume of surgery we produce, we do acknowledge the effort that teams went through."

Emergency department (ED) wait times were also on the agenda.

Te Whatu Ora outlined staffing and infrastructure challenges were holding it back from reaching its goal of a six-hour or less wait time for patients.

It also faced increasing demand, longer inpatient stays, and more people waiting for first specialist appointments.

But Verrall challenged Te Whatu Ora over its data relating to ED wait times.

"I am aware there is gaming of those numbers by admitting people to, for example, virtual wards, so they appear on a computer system to be out of the emergency department, but they are not," Verrall said, urging a need for more rigorous data measurement and auditing process.

Te Whatu Ora needed to work on its admission process to solve that, Apa said.

"Often, it's people may not be gaming but, you know, they've kind of got no other option to deal with a patient if they're stuck and they haven't got confirmation there's a bed in a ward."

Executives also faced questions over cyber security efforts, following the serious cyber attack in Waikato in 2021 which brought down all IT systems and phone lines.

Committee chair and National MP Sam Uffindell asked how it would ensure that did not happen again.

The organisation had already been able to defend similar cyber attacks since then, said chief cyber security officer Sonny Taite.

"We have evidence that we've been subjected to similar attempts, and our tools and our systems, the new systems we're rolling out, have picked up on some of those," he said.

And the pilot for its cyber academy, set up to reduce the skills shortage in cyber security experts, has been successful, Taite said.

The academy was developed in partnership with iwi, Te Pūkenga, Microsoft and the Ministry of Social Development, and was designed to give confidence to trainees with little knowledge.

There were now seven interns working inside Te Whatu Ora security teams, and it was looking at ways to expand the programme to other areas with skills shortages, within data and digital, Taite said.

The select committee hearing continues.