Lack of psychologists leads to 12-month waiting list for Taranaki children to be assessed

Taranaki psychologist Dr Frances James said psychologists are seen as a luxury item, but they are necessary.
Taranaki psychologist Dr Frances James said psychologists are seen as a luxury item, but they are necessary.

Taranaki children are having to wait more than a year to be assessed for behavioural or intellectual disorders because of a lack of psychologists and ongoing strikes. 

Roughly a third of mental health positions in New Zealand are unfilled and the wait is hurting those who are most vulnerable and setting them back in life, Frances James, a clinical psychologist for Taranaki District Health Board (TDHB), said.

"If a third of doctors were missing, hospitals couldn't run, whereas psychologists are seen as a luxury item but they are necessary."

A cognitive assessment can diagnose the likes of Autism, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia.

James said if children have to wait a year they will struggle because they will not have the support they are entitled to, such as a teacher aide.

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"Developmentally with children you don't want to miss those windows, you want interventions to be in place as soon as possible. 

"People are not getting seen when they need to be seen."

To meet demand for cognitive assessments, TDHB has been contracting private psychologists.

Five private psychologists were contracted by TDHB during the financial year ending June 30, 2019 at a total cost of $74,818. 

TDHB employs 14 psychologists, but this is the equivalent of 11.1 full-time employees based on hours worked.

The board has a 2.9 full-time equivalent vacancies spread across four positions, the majority of which have been vacant for a year or more. 

In South Taranaki, psychologist services are only available one day a week. Outside of that, people have to travel to New Plymouth. 

In December 2018 TDHB had one of the lowest staffing rates in New Zealand, ranking 16th out of the 20 DHBs. 

International best practice shows health services should employ one psychologist for every 5000 people. TDHB has one psychologist for every 8542 people.

In 2017, a workforce task group suggested 940 extra psychologists were needed across New Zealand's DHBs and primary care to meet demand.

"We just can't fill the vacancies," James said.

"The DHB is trying really hard, but the people just aren't there."

James said the hardest part of her job was saying no because she didn't have the capacity to see everyone. 

"Constantly trying to find options to support people is frustrating and exhausting."​

About 600 psychologists, members of the Apex union, have been taking partial strike action since July. 

As part of the nationwide movement, psychologists restricted their face-to-face contact with patients to two hours a day throughout October.

The offer DHBs made to union members on October 17 was overwhelmingly rejected and they were now balloting for the next round of strikes. 

James called the offer 'insulting' but said the strikes were about more than just money, even though salaries for DHB psychologists were roughly 15 per cent lower than those in Department of Corrections.

She said TDHB was a great place to work and it wasn't about that, it was about being able to provide the services patients deserve. 

"I don't know a single psychologist who does their job for the money. That's why it's so hard being on strike, the people who are affected aren't the hospital management, it's the patients."

Gillian Campbell, TDHB chief operating officer, said there were a number of challenges with recruiting psychologists, "including being a regional DHB competing with both the private sector and other DHBs", she said in an emailed statement. 

"This year we have proactively focused on recruitment, including at tertiary education providers, and as a result have successfully recruited two new trainee clinical psychologists."