The Labour Party is urging a rethink of Government health targets after a group of surgeons revealed important operations were being put off to reach a strict target.
The Herald revealed today that 13 orthopaedic surgeons at Waikato District Health Board have accused management of stopping them from making follow-up checks so they could instead focus on assessing new patients.
The Government's health target says patients must be seen by a specialist within four months of being referred by their GP.
Labour's health spokeswoman Annette King said it was "terrifying" that one woman's elective surgery was postponed at least twice so a surgeon could do more First Specialist Assessments (FSAs) to meet Government targets.
The target was "meaningless" because it could be "rorted" to meet the Government's requirements, she said.
King said DHBs needed to be incentivised, not penalised to meet targets. Financial penalties drove DHBs to meet the targets "come hell or high water".
"That's why Waikato DHB was scared stiff that if it didn't do enough First Specialist Assessments in orthopaedics, it would lose millions of dollars."
"If they don't do it within four months, then they're penalised. So that means around New Zealand you have some very seriously in pain people being sent to their GP because they can't do it in four months."
King also said the elective surgery target did not reflect the number of patients who did not qualify for a first assessment and were instead sent back to their GP.
The Government began measuring the number of people who missed out on elective surgery in 2014, out of concern about "unmet need".
Preliminary results released in March showed a bare minimum of 5300 people in a single quarter were referred by their GP for surgery but were not accepted for a first specialist assessment.
King said she was not opposed to national targets, but she said they needed to be tied to long-term health priorities.
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said he had been assured there was no manipulation of the system at Waikato DHB.
"The health targets are not just about numbers - they are about delivering better, faster access to services," he said.
"The target of patients seeing specialists within four months is all about getting better health outcomes for the patient."
Coleman said 3641 Waikato DHB patients received their First Specialist Assessment for orthopaedics in 2015/16 compared with 2758 in 2009/10, a 32 per cent increase.