Acting PM Grant Robertson defends NZ's health system after string of deaths amid severe staffing issues

The Acting Prime Minister is defending New Zealand's health system after a string of high-profile deaths as emergency departments grapple with severe staffing shortages.

It comes after a four-year-old boy died in Wellington Hospital's emergency department after being misdiagnosed and sent home. 

Over the next two days, his condition kept deteriorating so his parents took him back to the hospital where he was admitted straight away but died later that night. Early indications from the pathologist suggest he died from sepsis complications from tonsillitis.

The boy's death is one of several high-profile deaths in emergency rooms over the past few months. 

Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson told AM on Tuesday his deepest sympathies are with the boy's family. 

Robertson said his death wasn't caused by resourcing but misdiagnosis but he said he couldn't discuss the issue in depth until the coroner finished their report. 

He said the Government has prioritised health funding but COVID-19 and staffing shortages have put huge pressure on healthcare workers. 

"We've significantly lifted the amount of funding we've given to the health system overall, about a 40 percent increase since we've been in office. 

"We've increased the number of doctors and nurses we've got but there is a challenge here right now, which is that there is a global shortage in the health workforce. We're competing hard to get those people to come into New Zealand but there definitely is a strain within our health system when it comes to those staffing issues," he told AM.

Robertson said there has been a 20 percent increase in the number of both doctors and nurses since Labour took power but they're still playing catch up from under-resourcing under the previous Government. 

He said closed borders have also exacerbated staffing issues but that's starting to improve. 

"The issue we've got is right now, because the borders have been closed, we haven't been able to bring the number of people in that we wanted. It's picking up, there have been about 300 nurses, I think, come in from overseas since we started recruiting in July and there were about 500 visa applications there that are being processed. 

"So we are starting to get on top of it but it has definitely been an issue as we've been reopening the border," he said. 

The Acting Prime Minister also defended the Government's creation of Health New Zealand, saying it was necessary and the majority of spending still went to frontline services. 

"We are reorganising our health system and we need to if we want it to operate as effectively and as efficiently as all New Zealanders would want it to.

 "Having those 20 District Health Boards has been really inefficient from a financial perspective. We are putting money in to beef up Health New Zealand, create the Māori Health Authority, make sure those services are there but the bulk of what we have done has gone to the frontline."

Staffing shortages have been plaguing hospitals for much of this year as healthcare workers grappled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and a particularly bad winter season. 

And the staffing issues are ongoing. Earlier this month Te Whatu Ora released data to Newshub showing some regions are short 50 nurses in emergency departments alone. In Canterbury, the data showed it was 12 ED nurses short.

In September, Newshub revealed every month thousands of people are choosing to leave emergency departments instead of waiting for treatment, whilst the number of patients waiting more than 24 hours in an emergency department is soaring. 

In August, patients were forced to wait up to seven hours in Christchurch Hospital's ED as it struggled with demand.