'National scandal': 85,000 can't see specialist, some dying

Researchers used nationwide Health NZTe Whatu Ora data to conclude it was getting harder every...
Researchers used nationwide Health NZTe Whatu Ora data to conclude it was getting harder every year for Kiwis to access specialist doctors. Photo: Getty Images

By Rowan Quinn

At least 85,000 New Zealanders a year are being turned away from seeing a specialist, some of them dying as a result, a University of Otago study has found.

Researchers have described it as a national scandal.

One general practitioner (GP) told the study they had managed a heart patient "into the grave" because she could not get the care she needed.

Another talked about their fear of trying to care for teenagers with serious mental health problems, including hallucinations, who could not get into a psychiatrist's clinic.

Researchers used nationwide Health New Zealand/Te Whatu Ora data to conclude it was getting harder every year for New Zealanders to access specialist doctors.

They also conducted detailed interviews with 43 GPs about the impact on their patients.

"I just managed one into the grave. Couldn't get her in [to cardiology] and she just got worse and worse. Then she got liver failure and three days later she died," one said.

"You can only manage them so much, maybe they get better, maybe they don't, maybe they die. That's not dramatic, that's the issue. If you go through any GP, they'll be able to tell you they've had at least 10 versions of that every year."

Another doctor, new to the profession, told researchers they were scared they would do the wrong thing.

They had been treating teen patients who could not get in to see psychiatrists, and were advised by the community mental health team to prescribe strong psychiatric medicines.

The pressure was strong to treat outside your comfort zone, the GP said.

The study, in collaboration with General Practice New Zealand, found 14.2 percent of people, about 85,000, were declined specialist care even though their GP referred them.

That was up from 11.4 percent in 2018, representing an increase of 17,000 people.

One of the study's authors, health systems professor Robin Gauld, said the upward trend was continuing and was a "national scandal".

It was "appallingly bad" for patients who could be in pain or disabled because their condition could not be treated, Gauld said.

"We have thousands and thousands of people around the country not living life to their full potential."

The study found women were more likely than men to be declined care.

The postcode lottery was still evident, although most of the period covered was before Health NZ was formed to try to fix that in July 2022.

The former Southern DHB had 54 percent of referrals declined in 2022.

Mid-Central was next, on 26 percent, while Wairarapa was the lowest on 2.9 percent.

Many of the doctors surveyed talked about how hard being turned away was on patients.

One told the researchers about patients who had waited for years for shoulder treatment and could not work.

"And they're in pain, and they've got to be on strong opioids or whatever it is to get them through the day.

"So they've got no quality of life, they come in to see us every three months, it's costing them money, they're on a benefit, mental health, huge impact," they said.

Those who could not see a specialist had to pay for frequent GP visits and prescriptions to try to manage their condition.

Others doctor talked about working in their own time, ringing around trying to get patients help, with one saying once she had children she no longer had time.

They spoke about the "moral injury" they felt not being able to get their patients the care they needed.

Gauld said urgent action was needed now.

The initiative announced by Health Minister Dr Shane Reti in which GPs could refer patients for diagnostic scans including CTs and X-rays directly without seeing a specialist was a great start, he said, but much more funding and ideas were needed.