More than 5300 people missed out on elective surgery over a three-month period last year, figures released by the Government show.
But the actual total of declined applications for surgery is likely to be much higher, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said today - possibly up to 21,000 people in a quarter.
The Ministry of Health began measuring GPs' referrals to hospital specialists across all DHBs in 2014 amid concerns about "unmet need".
The first data was released this morning, showing that GPs made 145,922 referrals between July 1 and September 30. Of that total, 130,902 patients were accepted for a first specialist assessment, which is the first step towards approval for elective surgery.
Another 9685 patients had their requests delayed so further investigation could be carried out, or declined because the GP had not provided enough information or because the treatment was no longer needed.
About 4 per cent of the total, or 5335 patients, were not accepted for a first specialist assessment because they did not meet the threshold for elective surgery. The threshold for elective surgery was set by each individual DHB, according to patient priority and funding.
Dr Coleman said that as more data was collected under the new, standardised measurement system, it was expected that the number of patients who missed out on surgery would rise to between 10 and 15 per cent.
This meant that under the current rate of referrals, between 60,000 and 80,000 patients were being sent back to their GP for care each year.
The minister said the preliminary data would help the health sector better understand the outcomes of GP referrals to hospital specialists. "It's important that we have transparency within the health sector as it gives patients confidence that the system is working," he said.
Elective surgery is one of the National-led Government's national health targets.
• 145,922 referrals by GPs to hospital specialists (90%)
• 130,902 patients accepted for first specialist assessment (90%)
• 9685 requests delayed (6%)
• 5335 referrals declined/sent back to GP (4%)
- (Ministry of Health, July 1 - September 30 2015)