An 81-year-old woman languishing on an operating wait list for the past year sat hungry and cold for two and a half hours expecting hernia surgery only to be told it was cancelled because the hospital was too busy.
Helen Hennessey of Lyall Bay has also been on the waiting list for hip and shoulder replacements for the past year.
“I’m in agony. I have the most horrific pain in my groin and down my leg. Of course, my shoulder is sore - I can’t reach, can’t stretch, so to walk is pretty horrible,” she told the Herald.
She was one of four patients who had surgeries cancelled at Wellington Regional Hospital on Tuesday as the health system once again comes under pressure this winter.
Hennessey’s story comes as nurses, doctors, and administrators grapple with the strain the healthcare system is under as staff suffer burnout and patients face lengthy wait times for treatment.
The Herald revealed more than 6000 patients who have been approved for surgery have been waiting more than a year for their operation.
“It’s not good enough,” Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said earlier this year, adding she had made wait lists one of her top three priorities.
Te Whatu Ora Capital Coast and Hutt Valley hospital and specialist services interim lead Jamie Duncan said Wellington Regional Hospital was busier than usual the day Hennessey was there, requiring clinicians to prioritise urgent care.
The non-urgent planned surgeries which were cancelled will be rescheduled for the next available opportunity, Duncan said.
Four surgeries were cancelled on Tuesday because Wellington Hospital was so busy. Photo / Mark Mitchell
“Decisions about deferrals are made on a case-by-case basis by clinical teams, with the patient’s safety at the heart of all decisions.
“While these pressures are not new or isolated to our district, we recognise how frustrating long waits and deferrals can be and we sympathise with anyone who may experience distress.”
Hennessey arrived at the hospital at 7.30am and was soon called by a nurse who checked her vitals before she returned to the waiting room.
“It was freezing cold - I was like an ice block - and I sat there for two and a half hours.
“At 10 o’clock I was called again and that’s when [the nurse] said, ’I’m very sorry but your surgery has been cancelled’. She was lovely, she went to the kitchen and got me a cup of tea and got me sandwiches and biscuits and cheese and yoghurt because it was 16 hours since I’d eaten. I can’t fault the staff, it’s the administration.”
Hennessey has been given a name and a phone number to ring if she does not hear from the hospital within a fortnight to reschedule her surgery.
“Don’t get me wrong I’m not whinging but you know, when you’re in pain you want something done.
“Once you’re in hospital it’s wonderful. It’s getting in and getting seen to that’s the big problem.”
A plethora of problems have been exposed in New Zealand’s healthcare system this year, including emergency departments across the country being under unprecedented strain since the Covid-19 pandemic.
The equivalent of nine ambulances a day are also unable to respond to callouts because they are forced to idle outside emergency departments, waiting to drop off patients.
Figures provided by Hato Hone St John Ambulance show the exercise known as “ramping” - the extra time crews spend waiting for patients to be admitted - has increased more than threefold nationwide since 2019.
Wellington and Hutt Hospitals, where Hennessey is seeking treatment, have like many parts of the country been experiencing “high volumes” of patients through their emergency departments, pushing up overall occupancy rates.
Wellington, which has more than 340 adult inpatient beds, has operated at 97 per cent occupancy in recent weeks.
Overcrowded emergency departments are an indicator of stress in the wider health system, experts say, reflecting not just the treatment available for the acutely unwell but issues in primary care and hospital services upstream.
Shocking stories have emerged over the past year including a woman who died of a brain haemorrhage soon after leaving Middlemore because the wait to be triaged was too long, and desperate nurses in Whangārei who asked their bosses to bring in Army medics to relieve them.
This week the Government launched a major plan to plug significant healthcare worker shortages that are currently forecast to see nearly 13,000 extra nurses and more than 5000 doctors needed within a decade.
This included an earlier announcement to fund medical schools in New Zealand to take 50 additional students next year in a bid to address severe healthcare shortages and reduce dependence on foreign-trained doctors.
Yesterday, National promised it will build a new medical school at the University of Waikato to deliver more doctors, and ease the health workforce crisis.
Overall the health system currently has about 8000 vacancies, and based on current population growth an extra 1600 workers will be needed a year out to 2032.
The Government also launched a winter preparedness plan ahead of the colder months.
This included pharmacies offering free consultations and treatment of minor ailments for those eligible to ease pressure on GPs and hospital services.
One Wellington father told the Herald that pharmacies have become his first port of call when his two young children are sick because getting an appointment with a GP is so difficult.
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