Headlines over the last few days have highlighted the challenges hospital emergency departments are facing across the country.
Not a new headline, we hear it all too often. It was only November last year when the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, a senior doctor’s union, said the high cost of GP visits and long wait times are pushing many hospital emergency departments to breaking point.
On Wednesday, Dunedin Hospital declared a code black after reaching capacity. Whangārei Hospital also reached capacity, asking people to keep ED for emergencies only. It’s March – the busy winter flu season hasn’t even begun.
According to medical practitioners around the country, this is a nationwide problem which, without support, is going to get worse. There are reports of people being treated in corridors, long waits to be admitted to a ward, and in some cases, emergency department shifts with only two thirds of their normal number of nurses. It goes without saying staff burnout is an issue.
Minister of Heath Andrew Little’s initial response was to ask what management decisions are being taken to make sure they're getting the best use out of the extra finding DHB’s received in last year’s budget. A record $980 million extra had been allocated to DHBs for operational funding annually, as well as funding for increasing staffing numbers in hospitals.
I’d want to know too. But Little and emergency department staff know there is a bigger problem at hand. As the Minister told a select group of health sector representatives at Parliament earlier this week: "We know that our system is under serious stress and does not deliver equally for all."
It’s not just emergency departments; the whole DHB system and primary care are under pressure. Not enough GPs, the cost of seeing a GP, the wait to see a GP - are some of the many reasons patients are ending up in emergency departments.
The Health Minister announced this week that Cabinet is poised to sign off on a major redesign of the health system. The five areas of reform are: creating a more equitable system for Māori, making sure all people can access a range of support in their community, access to emergency and specialist care, more digital services to help support people in their homes and local communities, and that health and care workers would be valued and well trained for the future health system.
This is what we should expect from our health system, and many would argue a lot of people have been and are currently working very hard to provide this.
But we have been struggling for too long, and we all know that money alone won’t get us to where we want to be.
I was pleased to see Andrew Little met with Australasian College for Emergency Medicine president Dr John Bonning on Friday. He too believes the crisis currently facing emergency departments goes beyond their doors; so it’s good to see Minister Little listening to those who deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis. They are the ones with a real understanding of what’s involved, and I imagine they likely to be the ones with the solutions.
If the Minister is serious about the need for “partnerships” to implement meaningful change, he needs to keep listening. For all our health’s sake.