Hidden cost of waiting lists 'huge'

Last updated 05:00 02/01/2014

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Kiwis awaiting surgery and in too much pain to work are burning through their sick leave and annual leave entitlements and lumping an "enormous" social cost on the economy.

Elective surgery waiting-list back-ups are forcing thousands of New Zealanders to take extended time off work and their family members to do the same to care for them, according to a survey conducted by the Health Funds Association of New Zealand (HFANZ) and the Private Surgical Hospitals Association (NZPSHA).

The research was the first in a decade to measure levels of unmet surgical need across the country.

It found 280,000 Kiwis meet the clinical threshold for elective surgery but only 110,000 have been formally placed on a waiting list.

Global market research firm TNS conducted the random survey of almost 2000 Kiwis and reported that the average waiting time in the public sector, from GP referral to the operating table, was upward of 224 days.

Of those adults waiting for surgery in the public system, a quarter had taken an average of five weeks off work.

Health Minister Tony Ryall was unavailable for comment yesterday. But he has previously said the survey was paid for by private health insurers "who are looking to drum up business".

"The fact is almost 160,000 New Zealanders will get elective surgery this year, 40,000 a year more than when we came in. This big increase has put pressure on the private health insurance businesses, with their policy numbers declining," he said.

HFANZ chief executive Roger Styles said the research showed that many patients would have to take unpaid leave and many family members would also need to take time off work to care for their loved ones.

"The flow-on effect throughout the New Zealand economy is huge," he said.

Christchurch specialist surgeon Dr Phil Bagshaw agreed the social toll would be "enormous".

It would include the loss of work, loss of income and other less tangible costs, such as "the people who have lost hope that they will get treated", he said.

As the debate about levels of unmet surgical need continues to grow, Bagshaw once again called for "an independent, scientifically robust system to measure the problem".

Professor Gary Hooper, head of the University of Otago (Christchurch) department of orthopaedic surgery and musculoskeletal medicine, said measuring the social cost of surgical waiting lists was "open to a lot of debate and criticism".

It would be easy to measure the amount of time a patient in the workforce had taken off work, but most patients who required major joint replacement surgery were retired and "measuring that social cost is very difficult".

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The demand on agencies such as Meals on Wheels and Nurse Maude would need to be factored in, as would placing a temporarily immobilised patient in a rest home, he said.

"That would amount to an enormous social cost . . . "

NZPSHA president Greg Brooks said the issue "needed to be made a priority for political parties as they headed into election year".

The research was initially released in September. The survey involved 1830 respondents and had a margin of error of 2.3 per cent.

- Fairfax Media

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