Nearly 4,000 people have failed to see a Waikato board doctor due to the pressure of Covid-19 affecting the healthcare system.
Between August 15, 2021 and June 26, 2022, nearly 4,000 initial specialist assessments and follow-up visits in Waikato were canceled due to Covid-related reasons.
2054 other outpatient appointments were also made.
Te Whatu Ora Waikato says it has a plan to catch up, offering additional clinics after hours and weekends and using facilities away from the main hospital sites.
However, a health systems expert says it will be extremely difficult to catch up and the overburdened health system is “downright a national scandal”.
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Waikato ended up behind counties of Manukau, Auckland, Canterbury and Waitematā for regions that had canceled most of the initial specialist screenings and follow-up screenings due to Covid-19.
Nationwide, 62,524 of those appointments were axed.
Professor Robin Gauld, a co-director of the University of Otago’s Center for Health Systems and Technology, said each of these patients had a condition significant enough to warrant a referral to a specialist.
“It’s not without reason.”
The cancellation of these appointments had a tremendous personal cost to people and their families, causing stress and affecting their ability to work and lead normal and productive lives.
Patients had to wait and miss treatment, which could worsen their condition.
It would also affect many people financially, he said. People who could afford it would probably give up and go private.
“It’s a tremendous price for everyone.”
Gauld said it was extremely difficult to catch up on those dates.
He said evening and weekend clinics have helped but put more pressure on healthcare workers in the midst of what is seen as a workforce crisis.
It also costs staff to pay for the extra hours.
The overloaded system meant patients were missing out and this put more pressure on workers in the industry – who eventually burned out and left the company.
It was a vicious cycle, Gauld said.
He said Covid-19 had affected the way many systems were running around the world, but it was still deeply worrying that the patient backlog continued to build up.
Gauld said New Zealanders had slowly but surely developed a resignation over a generation that the health system could not cater for everyone.
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“This is nothing short of a national scandal.”
dr Martin Mikaere, GP at Te Korowai Hauora o Hauraki in Thames, said it was frustrating to refer patients he had hoped would be seen the first time.
“But I understand how it works.”
He said the system itself is to blame – and when patients get an appointment, it’s associated with a good experience.
“They do a really good job there.”
A spokesman for Te Whatu Ora Waikato said the health agency has a plan to catch up on the postponed procedures and is running additional clinics to that end.
The spokesman said it was always worrying when appointments had to be cancelled.
The time between the original appointments and the postponed procedures varied from case to case.
Patients with the highest clinical needs — such as diagnoses, cancer cases and urgently scheduled care cases — have been prioritized, the spokesman said.
Te Whatu Ora Waikato had hospital and district contingency plans in place that provided for less planned care so resources could be prioritized for urgent and time-sensitive cases. These were carried out at times of high demand or when employees were sick above average.
This was carefully managed to ensure the hospital was able to meet the needs of patients who required the most urgent care.
The spokesman said planned care capacity increased as the weather improved, with additional clinics being offered after hours and on weekends.
Facilities away from the large hospital sites were also used, such as using a private provider for additional clinic capacity for orthopedic patients.
District staff have also been deployed to assist with follow-up appointments and minor procedures at rural hospitals, mobile clinics and home visits.
Te Whatu Ora Waikato outsourced when necessary, not only for surgical procedures but also for diagnostics such as ultrasound or CT scans to further reduce patient wait times, the spokesman said.