Healthcare worker shortage hits after-hours ward at Far North Hospital
The shortage of health personnel has become so severe in the Far North that there will soon be no doctor on site at Rāwene Hospital in the evenings or at night.
The 26-bed hospital serves Hokianga, which falls in Aotearoa’s highest deprivation index.
Hauora Hokianga runs the hospital and its register of more than 7,300 patients shows that 96% of the population has high needs.
Hauora Hokianga’s chief executive, Margareth Broodkoorn (Ngāpuhi), told patients on Facebook that the decision to temporarily halt after-hours medical services from next Monday August 29 was taken with “great reluctance”. and “despite considerable and continued efforts”.
“I’m so sorry to have come to this, a decision that was not taken lightly without asking for help from others and exploring multiple options.”
There had been recruitment issues for years and “critical” labor issues, particularly in services and after-hours services, she said.
The absence of a doctor overnight would affect the hospital’s ability to admit new patients, Broodkoorn said.
She said those north of the port could access the Kaitāia Hospital and those south could go to the Bay of Islands Hospital in Kawakawa.
“Talk to your whānau and friends, have a plan in place if you need to access urgent health services outside your home, make sure you have gas in your car.”
The 10 community health clinics in Hauora Hokianga would remain open “with some minor disruptions”.
Wait times for primary care
Meanwhile, some residents of the Far North told RNZ they had considered moving away from the area due to long waits to see GPs.
All three GP clinics in Kaitāia have closed books, and even for registered patients it can take a month to get an appointment.
People in need of more urgent care can visit the general medical ward after normal working hours, but there are not enough doctors on site to fill the list.
Among those struggling to make it to a GP was mum Amy Evans.
“I literally phoned everywhere from Kaitāia three hours away, no one was taking anyone, so we have to stay with our GP in Auckland.”
She was happy to be out of town this year until she realized how hard it was to see a doctor.
“It’s not a big part of living here, it’s probably one of the worst parts of living in this area,” she said.
Traveling to see his GP face-to-face would be “massive disruption”, including the bills for a night’s accommodation with his son and fuel to and from Auckland, Evans said.
“It’s a pretty…ridiculous situation here.”
Another Far North resident, Susan, said the delays for basic exams were “incredibly frustrating”.
“There is literally nothing we can do.”
She had lived in the area for years, but months of waiting to see a GP had forced her to consider moving, as others had.
“I have a friend who just sold her property and moved out of the area because it’s not a place to grow old.”
Kaitāia GP Norma Nehren heard similar comments from patients.
“Absolutely, but you know, I think they’ll find it’s going to be difficult in other places too.”
At the clinic in Nehren, Te Hiku Hauora, patients had to book three to four weeks.
This year, “we’ve probably reached the lowest ratio of clinicians per capita to our population that we’ve had in the 15 years I’ve been here,” Nehren said.
In the Far North, 50% of the population is made up of Whakapapa Maori, but the average life expectancy of Maori is seven years less than that of non-Maori.
The University of Auckland’s associate dean of rural health, Dr Kyle Eggleton, who practices in Hokianga, said the shortage of GPs was threatening lives.
“If we expand this across the country, we’re going to have people dying without being able to see their GP because their healthcare needs aren’t being met. Their cancers aren’t being detected in a timely manner.
“Things are recovered later – so the later someone shows up with an illness or disease, the less able you are to cure or treat them.”
“So yeah, it’s a matter of life or death,” he said.
Jennie Paul moved to Kaitāia this winter and had also been unable to register with a practice.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous’. I went home thinking, I’m fucking moving.”
She had to use the hospital’s after-hours service, paying a premium of $60 per visit.
But there weren’t enough doctors left to staff this service either.
Te Whatu Ora told RNZ that one of the support practices dropped from the list due to a lack of staff, so telehealth was used instead on some days.
Paul said it was “not acceptable”.
“You can’t cut a night shift when you don’t give people the option of having a GP in the first place. You just can’t, you can’t physically do that to people.”
Kaitāia Hospital is also understaffed, with two vacancies in a medical team of eight doctors.
Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis Davis (Ngāti Manu) said open borders would bring foreign clinicians to the north.
“The government is taking this very seriously trying to get locums into the regions. I know teleconferencing is not the same as seeing a doctor face to face, but there is teleconferencing capability.”
Earlier this month, the government announced it would increase the number of GP trainees from 200 to 300 a year.
It also set up a six-month bridging program for doctors coming to Aotearoa, with paid salaries including induction and internships.