College of Surgeons warns long-term measures to address workforce issues are critical to solving waitlist crisis

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) welcomes early moves by the Planned Care Taskforce to address long waitlists for planned surgery but urges the government to move faster and develop a long-term plan to recruit and retain a sustainable supply of skilled healthcare workers.

Last month, Te Whatu Ora – Health NZ leaders, including taskforce head Andrew Connolly, directed all 20 of its health districts (formerly DHBs) to book a surgical slot by 31 August for the 7500 people who have been waiting longer than a year.

Associate Professor Andrew MacCormick, RACS’ Aotearoa New Zealand National Committee (AoNZNC) Chair, says the College applauds the Taskforce’s urgent and practical first steps to tackle planned care wait times. However, he warns the focus should not be diverted from the root cause of long waitlists and urges the government to accelerate plans to relieve worker shortages across the healthcare sector. 

“We’ve had staffing shortages for years and there are vacancies we’ve been unable to recruit for. Workers moving overseas for better opportunities and an ageing workforce means the situation is worsening. The pandemic simply added to these pressures and highlighted how under-resourced Aotearoa New Zealand hospitals are. It has also resulted in more burnout for an already exhausted workforce.”

“There is a high possibility we may continue to be affected by COVID-19 for years to come. We need to look at a long-term, 15- to 20-year approach to address the current shortfalls and mitigate risks when it comes to workforce planning, succession planning, developing different models of care, and building health infrastructure.

“We can’t afford to wait much longer to bring relief. Many surgical specialty areas are critically short of numbers, and this affects the ability to provide services where they are needed.”

At the same time, Associate Professor MacCormick says any strategy should focus on training domestic workers over importing skilled ones from overseas, for reasons of patient equity and increasing the Māori and Pasifika healthcare workforce.

He said partnering with high schools to encourage STEM subjects, especially among Māori and Pasifika students, and ensuring the capacity of our medical schools is being fully utilised are just two ideas that could help bolster the domestic supply of health professionals. 

“However, it takes 15 to 18 years to train a surgeon. A long-term plan with an immediate start should be considered to develop a pipeline of domestic workers.”

Associate Professor MacCormick said the College of Surgeons was ready to work with the government to address these challenges and make sure we have a healthcare system that works, both now and into the future.

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Diana Blake, Communications Specialist

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