Thousands left off surgery waiting lists suffering indefinitely


Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders living in pain are unable to access health care due to long waiting lists.

Concern is growing for the increasing number of mental, surgical and dental problems being overlooked, a study in the New Zealand Medical Journal has revealed.

Co-author Dr Phil Bagshaw, who founded the Canterbury Charity Hospital, said Government data did not scrape the barrel on the number of people in need, and the Ministry of Health was turning a blind eye to the issue.

There was a desperate need for a national survey of all district health boards to confirm the level of unmet need and the number of patients deliberately left off waiting lists to ensure they remained under the allocated four-month timeframe, he said.

In the public health system, an initial assessment must be completed within four months, and subsequent surgeries must be carried out within another four months. 

By refusing to add patients to the list, health boards were able to dodge financial late penalties, but it left those kept off waiting lists in the dark indefinitely, Bagshaw said.


"It's all smoke and mirrors and a load of rubbish.There are a number of restrictions in the pipeline and several filters patients now have to get through to receive treatment.


"The Government is trying to encourage people to go private, and all they've done is bury the real need by producing a system that only caters to some." Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Ian Powell said the study's findings were "very concerning".


"It's not fine when so many thousands of people are living with distress and illness aggravated by inadequate access to the health care they need."


Bagshaw said early treatment resulted in "more productive [and] less costly people who contribute more to society". "Putting things off just makes them more expensive in the long term." A pilot study on the best way to measure unmet need revealed at least 25 per cent of adults were not able to get the primary health care they needed and 9 per cent lived with untreated secondary health problems.

During the eight-month study, there were 895 referrals for a first specialist assessment – the first hurdle for anyone needing an elective surgery – for those needing knee replacements. A second report said the public health system was under increasing pressure to complete elective surgeries, and the Canterbury District Health Board's (CDHB) orthopaedic services were particularly strained.

Of those referrals, only 113 (13 per cent) were sent directly to the surgery waiting list, and 295 were accepted for a specialist consultation. A further 84 (9 per cent) had their requests delayed so doctors could obtain more information. Almost half were unable to receive a referral, with 173 patients deemed too low priority and 230 (26 per cent) left off the waiting list because of low capacity, despite having a condition that would benefit from surgery. 

The country's aging population had increased the need for orthopaedic surgery, with demand for hip replacements expected to rise by 84 per cent and demand for knee replacements expected to rise 183 per cent by 2026.

Government data showed only 0.6 per cent of patients waited longer than four months for treatment, but experts suggested that number was much higher. Up to 54 per cent of patients with knee problems were not referred on for treatment at all, meaning they were excluded from the Ministry of Health's data set but continued to live with excruciating pain, the study said.

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