Prime Minister Chris Hipkins defends surgery equity tool

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins is defending a surgery prioritisaton equity tool the Opposition is labelling as discriminatory.

Te Whatu Ora has developed an "equity adjustor waitlist tool" for non-urgent surgeries after a study found those on low incomes, in rural areas and Māori and Pacific people wait longer.

"Clinical decision-making needs to be based on health needs as a first principle," National Party Health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti told AM on Tuesday.

"The moment you step away from health needs and introduce something like ethnicity - which is what the equity adjuster does - then you run the risk of… introducing the 'depth of your pocket' as a distributor of health resources, and maybe the next day it's your worth to society.

"Health needs must be the very first principle in clinical decision-making," Dr Reti said.   

But Hipkins told AM the waitlist tool was an attempt to balance inequities.

"Clinical needs should be the number one… prioritisation criteria - and it is and it will be and it will continue to be," the Prime Minister assured, but "evidence has been identified that suggests that Māori, Pacific, those from rural communities and those from low-income backgrounds have been waiting longer with the same clinical need for health care as other New Zealanders".

He said that's why Te Whatu Ora has taken action.

"People shouldn't be getting less access to health care because they're Māori, Pacific, from a rural community or from a low-income background. So my understanding is that in Northland and I think it's one of the Auckland DHBs, they've been looking at ways to reduce that - they've been looking at what the criteria are that they use to prioritise those who are on the waitlist to make sure that they're dealing with that past discrimination."

But Dr Reti was unhappy with the tool.

"There's a range of factors that contribute to inequities and they're absolutely there, I absolutely agree there are inequities in the health system - but I think the way to address this is actually with cultural competency training," he said. 

"If we were more culturally competent across the whole health system [and] if we were to improve our teaching at medical schools and nursing schools… I think we'll get better outcomes to address inequities."

Hipkins, however, understood the equity tool had been successful in the likes of Northland.

"If you've got an urgent clinical need, you will get that urgent clinical need seen to," he reiterated.

"What we're talking about here is people who are languishing on a waitlist for a less urgent clinical need.

"We've been putting a lot of pressure on [Te Whatu Ora] to get those waitlists down. As they do that, they want to do that equitably so that some people aren't getting preferential treatment over others - that's the overall goal here."

Hipkins has asked his Health Minister, Ayesha Verrall, to ensure the equity tool wasn't discriminatory.