'High-powered taskforce' being set up to tackle hospital waiting times, nurse calls current backlog 'abysmal'

A "high-powered taskforce" within the Government's new health organisations will conduct a national review of all hospital waiting lists and look for "whatever short-term measures they can to reduce" them, Andrew Little says.

Anne Daniels, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation President, has been a nurse for 43 years and says waiting lists have never been so bad as they currently are. 

"It is absolutely abysmal," she told AM. "As a nurse, because I still work casually in a hospital, I see the patients coming in much, much sicker with much more complexities and it's taking longer and longer to actually help them."

The new group, overseen by Counties Manukau chief medical officer and colorectal surgeon Andrew Connolly, will work with hospitals to find ways to cut down waiting times and deliver a national plan by September. 

"I expect a national review of all waiting lists and a reassessment of the situation of everyone on it," the Health Minister said on Wednesday. "I also expect the taskforce to make full use of all health resources, including those in the private sector."

Little said New Zealand's elimination approach to COVID-19 stopped the system from being overrun as has been seen in other parts of the world. 

In England, the minister said, the number of people waiting for planned care for more than a year jumped from a little more than 1600 in February 2020 to more than 300,000 in November 2021.

But COVID-19 has still caused disruptions and led to appointments and surgeries being postponed as hospitals and health practitioners responded to the pandemic.

The number of people waiting longer than four months for their first appointments with hospital specialised has doubled, Little said, while the number waiting longer than four months for treatment has trebled.

"For people who need these procedures and appointments, having to wait is distressing," he said.

"Now, with the benefit of having one of the most highly vaccinated populations in the world, and with a suite of new medicines available to treat COVID-19 patients and keep many of them out of hospital, we can start managing on a more business-as-usual basis."

Little said if there is no change to how waiting times were tacked, "it could take between three to five years to clear the planned-care backlog".

"It is my expectation that we can clear the backlog in considerably less time than that."

Daniels said the backlog meant nurses had less time with patients and had to prioritise who needed care first.

"People who need to be seen immediately are seen then, but everyone else gets to wait even if they are very, very ill. For the nurses and the doctors and the health workforce making those decisions really, really hurts."

That's one of the reasons many nurses are leaving the workforce, Daniels believes.

"They cannot face the trauma of seeing our patients suffer."

More investment and communication between government and nurses is needed, she said. She would want to see a nurse on the taskforce.

National's health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti said the Government's "so-called 'plan' is nothing more than an announcement of an announcement".

"Whenever Labour realise they’ve failed to deliver, their only move seems to be announcing another working group, and promising they are working on it."

He said the number of people on the waiting list had ballooned before COVID-19.

"Keeping wait lists down is a core job for a competent Health Minister and in throwing a hospital pass to a working group, he is abdicating his responsibility."

The taskforce will work from within Health New Zealand and the Māori Health Authority, the two new organisations which will be responsible for health services in New Zealand. They're in an interim stage at the moment and will become permanent entities from July 1. 

"We have an opportunity right up-front to harness one of the principal benefits of the reforms – a truly nationwide approach to the health problems that affect us all," Little said.

"With one public health system, we have the opportunity to work together to make sure people get the treatment they need, no matter which part of the country they live in."

Members of the taskforce are:

  • Professor Diana Sarfati, the chief executive of Te Aho o te Kahu, the Cancer Control Agency.
  • Wellington GP Dr Jeff Lowe, who chairs General Practice New Zealand.
  • Auckland District Health Board funding and development manager Jo Brown.
  • Canterbury District Health Board chief operating officer for networks, Dan Coward.
  • Canterbury District Health Board director of nursing Brenda Close.
  • Bay of Plenty DHB clinical director Linda Chalmers.
  • Northland DHB general and oncoplastic breast surgeon Maxine Ronald.
  • Dr Kiki Maoate, a paediatric surgeon at Canterbury DHB.
  • Dr Rawiri Jansen, the clinical director of the National Hauora Coalition. Dr Jansen has been appointed to the taskforce by the Interim Māori Health Authority.