Sick, suffering patients wait weeks to see their general practitioner in the midst of a health crisis


Patients in Northland are waiting up to four weeks to see their GP as medical centers battle a shortage of GPs, growing workloads and rising Covid-19 and flu cases.

Patients say expectations are not enough and they fear that new health reforms will not do enough to solve the problems.

The challenges come as hospitals in Tai Tokerau are full, with patients being treated in hallways and on chairs.

A patient, Brian, whose last name Things agreed not to use, has to wait a month to see a doctor at Dargaville Medical Center for a suspected rotator cuff injury after a fall.

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He fears that it will take him several more months to see a specialist and have shoulder surgery, if necessary.

While managing the pain with over-the-counter painkillers, Brian struggles to sleep and can’t lift his arms to change.

A man with a suspected rotator cuff injury needs to use an over-the-counter pain reliever and fears it will be several more months before he can see a specialist.  (File photo)

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A man with a suspected rotator cuff injury needs to use an over-the-counter pain reliever and fears it will be several more months before he can see a specialist. (File photo)

Another patient, Alison, who Things also agreed not to name completely, ended up in hospital with pneumonia and chest pains after days of trying to see a GP for her bad flu.

“I thought I was having a heart attack – all because I couldn’t get in when I realized I needed to see a doctor,” the Bush Road Medical patient said Center of Whangārei.

Now that she’s been discharged from hospital, Alison hasn’t been able to see a doctor for a new antibiotic prescription, as she refuses to wait outside in the rain for an assessment.

Mahitahi Hauora, the primary healthcare entity for most medical centers in Northland, says the region’s doctor shortages have been exacerbated by a perfect storm of factors.

A Northland patient says she can't get a new prescription because she doesn't want to wait outside for an assessment while she has pneumonia.  (File photo)

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A Northland patient says she can’t get a new prescription because she doesn’t want to wait outside for an assessment while she has pneumonia. (File photo)

Additional care work Covid-19vaccination mandates, border closures preventing foreign doctors from entering the country and visa restrictions forcing some doctors to return abroad have all had an impact, said Sandra Wilkinson, head of partnership services.

Additionally, there has been a surge in the number of people moving to Northland, she said. Infometrics estimates that Northland has increased 1.9% in 2021 alone, much faster than the 0.6% rate for all of New Zealand.

Mahitahi Hauora is trying to help by increasing the number of mental health professionals and general practice nurses, to ease the pressure on GPs, Wilkinson said.

It is also asking hospitals to help ease the after-hours load in the Far North and exploring options to increase virtual care in Northland.

A long-term medical workforce pipeline from Tai Tokerau aims to encourage graduates to go into primary care in the region, with six medical students completing their internships this year, she said.

A Whangārei practice manager, Iain Watkins of West End Medical, said practices were trying to assess patients over the phone to determine if they needed urgent care.

Acute patients and young children should be seen on the same day, but patients whose condition will not be worsened by a wait will be classified as non-urgent, he said.

But Watkins said patients who might be in pain – like Brian with a rotator cuff injury – shouldn’t wait too long to be seen by a GP.

He agreed with Wilkinson’s assessment of factors contributing to the shortage of GPs, but said specialists were also asking GPs to do more work for patients needing surgery.

Burnout and stress are a common problem for GPs and Watkins fears another wave of Covid-19 is approaching.

Wilkinson said everyone can play their part in helping medical centers keep doctor’s appointments free for people who really need them.

Most people with a cold or flu do not need to see a doctor, and anyone unsure can contact Healthline for advice on 0800 611 116.

She advises patients to talk to their medical center about seeing a nurse or having a virtual appointment.

But she said patients who thought they needed to be seen urgently should let the medical center know and call an ambulance on 111 in the event of a medical emergency.

Things could not reach Dargaville Medical Center or the Practice Director of Bush Road Medical Center for comment.

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