Surgery waitlists grow on West Coast

Othopaedics and plastic surgery waitlists have been growing on the West Coast even before Covid hit. (File photo)
Louie Douvis/AP
Othopaedics and plastic surgery waitlists have been growing on the West Coast even before Covid hit. (File photo)

The number of West Coast people waiting for surgery or a specialist's assessment has soared in recent weeks because of Covid constraints, the vaccine mandate and staff shortages.

In his report to the district health board’s (DHB) health advisory committee, operations manager Phil Wheble said 135 patients had been waiting more than four months for their first specialist appointment by the end of September.

That compares to just seven in October 2020, and the numbers have been creeping up month by month ever since.

Most were orthopaedic cases (90) along wth plastic surgery (25) and respiratory patients (13).

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And 116 patients had been waiting more than four months for surgery they needed, 63 of them orthopaedic cases.

Others had been waiting longer than they were supposed to for dental and plastic surgery, and operations involving gynaecology, urology and other areas.

The waiting times for orthopaedics and plastic surgery were growing even before Covid took its toll, because of staffing problems, Wheble said.

“Even after travel and distancing restrictions were eased, Air New Zealand was not operating twice-daily flights in to the West Coast until September 22, which impacted on visiting specialists' ability to travel to undertake surgery and a range of surgical and medical clinics.”

Telehealth appointements had been used where possible, Wheble said.

The new Te Nikau, Grey Hospital and Health Centre in Greymouth.
The new Te Nikau, Grey Hospital and Health Centre in Greymouth.

The DHB was making a concerted effort to catch up, but was hampered by staff shortages.

The good news was that the DHB had been able to fill five nusing vacancies, one in paediatrics and four in the short-stay unit, and one surgical vacancy.

“Dr Black, our full-time general surgeon and his family arrived in New Zealand in late October from Colorado. Dr Black is an experienced endoscopist and a surgeon with a passion for rural communities.”

The DHB was also recruiting a Canterbury-based surgeon for regular part-time work.

Committee member Edie Moke said: “Thirty-two per cent is just terrible. I get your point about Covid and clinical input that's not available at the moment, but at what point do you think we will see a reduction in those statistics?”

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Wheble said there was no one answer for all the services.

“For example, orthopaedics will continue to be a challenge. It is a constrained resource with plastics ... but what we've done is trained up one of our rural generalists to do some of that work in primary care.”

Dental surgery lists had been set back both by Covid and the Westport floods, but there would be a chance to catch up on the backlog in December, Wheble said.

“It won't eliminate the total but it will dent it.”

Prior to Christmas, the other waiting lists would continue to be problematic, he said.

“Some of the workforce issues we're facing are because of the mandatory vaccination order, and that has impacted on us without anaesthetists – not our staff – but locums that were about to cover various leave [gaps] .”

The DHB's new permanent anaesthetist would arrive in New Zealand just before Christmas, and that issue would be resolved in January, when she began work, Wheble said.

But across the DHB services, the impact of Covid and the need to resource a national response would still makeitself felt in the months to come, he said.

Committee chairman Peter Neame said he believed it would take several years for the impact of the pandemic to subside.

“Things won't be right for three to five years, in my opinion. If you look back at history pandemics have a course. It doesn't matter what we do … we just have to live through it, and get on with it.”