Life-saving diagnoses of conditions like cancer could be delayed for South Aucklanders because of a workforce crisis, a union says.
The warning over delays for procedures like CT scans comes after problems like a lack of staff and bed space in maternity services contributed to the recent death or stillbirth of three babies.
Medical imaging technologists (MITs) perform procedures that about 80 per cent of all hospital patients have, including X-rays, CT scans and MRIs.
Middlemore Hospital is struggling under a shortfall of 19 fulltime technologist positions, says the Apex union, which represents allied, scientific and technical workers.
Apex spokesman Luke Coxon said that was the worst MIT staffing crisis Counties Manukau DHB had faced.
Patients with severe injury and illness or those recovering from surgery were being prioritised, he said, and that meant delays for people sent from GPs for X-rays or CT scans.
The DHB used to book about 80 to 100 scans from GP referrals each day, and this had dropped to about five, Coxon said.
"Timely X-ray and CT scans are essential to attaining early and potentially life-saving diagnoses, including detecting the early stages of cancer.
"If the MIT workforce crisis is not fixed, it is only a matter of time until patients miss their window of opportunity for life-saving treatment because they're stuck on a waitlist for diagnostic scans."
Coxon said the DHB was battling to recruit and retain staff, because better pay and working conditions were typically on offer overseas or in the private sector. Auckland's high cost of living also drove people away.
He said the current management was doing what it could to address the problem, but more planning and help from the Ministry of Health was badly needed. Other health boards had the same problem, with multiple DHBs having "critical levels of MIT understaffing".
However, Counties Manukau DHB chief executive Fepulea'i Margie Apa rejected the union's statements as "alarmist and disappointing".
There are 14 full-time vacancies, but this was off-set by a "very strong" pool of bureau staff which minimised gaps in shifts, Apa said. The DHB had made four contract offers, and had 14 applications in process, and five others referred to a regulatory authority to check on ability to work in NZ.
"The MRI waitlist is the lowest it has been in two years, despite the union's claims that staffing shortages are causing delays. And the CT waitlist is under control with over 93 per cent of patients being scanned within six weeks which is meeting our Ministry targets."
Other claims made by Apex were also incorrect, Apa said.
"Apex is aware of the mitigation and recruitment activities currently underway and it is extremely disappointing that information about the workforce shared as part of our partnership meetings with them is being used publicly to try to further their bargaining claims."
Counties Manukau DHB has taken urgent steps to improve maternity services at Middlemore after problems like lack of staff and bed space contributed to the recent death or stillbirth of three babies. Resourcing problems were also a factor in other incidents where patients were seriously harmed.
A Herald investigation has found maternity care for South Aucklanders fell below safe standards, as services struggled to cope with big increases in the number of pregnancies needing more care and monitoring.
Yesterday Health Minister David Clark hinted some relief could be on the way.
"We are certainly interested in making sure we have appropriately supported facilities," he told the Herald of the maternity service crisis. "I do expect to have more to say on that in coming weeks."