At 56 years old, Tim McMahon can't walk 100m. Louise Roberts is in "chronic pain" and can no longer work fulltime. And Helen has trouble getting dressed, cooking and doing the dishes. These are the stories of three Bay of Plenty people who have been waiting years for hip surgery at Tauranga Hospital. The latest data shows there are 1940 people on the waitlist for elective surgery - compared with just 12 people in October 2017. Megan Wilson reports.
The number of patients waiting for surgery at Tauranga Hospital has soared from 12 to almost 2000 in five years.
Data from Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi Bay of Plenty — formerly the district health board — shows 1940 people waiting for elective surgery, such as hip and knee operations. This number had grown by more than 700 since September.
Of those waiting, 1583 do not have a date scheduled for surgery.
A report to the Ministry of Health showed there were 12 people waiting for elective surgery in October 2017.
Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi Bay of Plenty says it understands people are frustrated and its team is doing "all we can" to increase the number of patients seen, while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the health system's move to Te Whatu Ora — Health New Zealand would also help.
Pāpāmoa man Tim McMahon, 56, says he struggles to get out of bed because of the pain in his hip. He can no longer walk his dog, ride his bike or play golf.
"I can't even walk 100m."
McMahon's health troubles started in January 2017 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He is now on hormone treatment, but his cancer could return at any time. To help keep it at bay, his oncologist told him to keep "fit and healthy".
Due to pain in his hip, he is unable to do so.
McMahon was told he needed a hip replacement in April 2021. In March or April this year, he was advised by a specialist this could be done before Christmas.
But his GP told him last month his surgery would now be taking place in May or June 2023.
"It's pretty depressing. It's pretty hard to take," he told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.
McMahon, who works fulltime from home as an account manager, said he was "extremely worried" that not exercising would affect his prostate cancer.
"If they replace my hip, I can get back to doing things."
Mother can no longer work fulltime due to "chronic pain"
Ōmokoroa mother Louise Roberts, 54, has been waiting nearly three years for hip replacement surgery after she was referred in December 2019.
But due to Covid-19, she did not get a specialist appointment until October 2021.
The specialist told her she had advanced arthritis and needed surgery. About three weeks later, she was told she would have surgery within four months.
"And I'm still waiting."
She had received two apology emails from the hospital saying she was still on the waitlist but it could not give her a date for surgery.
"I am only 54 but feel 90."
A teacher aide, Roberts is now working 30 hours per week instead of 40, "because I just physically and mentally cannot cope".
This had put "extra financial strain" on her family but "it was either some kind of breakdown or basically cut my hours".
"I'm on my feet most of the day. I love my job but I do find it hard. I'm exhausted when I get home. I don't sleep very well because every time I move in bed I wake up in pain."
Roberts lives with her husband and two children, aged 12 and 15.
"It's really affected my family life because I can't do much with my kids. We don't go walking, we don't go biking because I physically cannot do that."
Retiree's surgery wait is "beyond a joke"
Seventy-five-year-old Tauranga resident Helen, who did not want her surname published for medical privacy reasons, was told in May 2020 she needed hip surgery.
More than two-and-a-half years later, she still does not have a date.
Helen, who is retired and lives by herself, said the wait was "beyond a joke".
"I used to do Zumba and I swam and I walked ... and it's just come to a halt."
Helen has trouble getting dressed, cooking and doing the dishes, and needs help to shower and clean the house, which is "really belittling".
She usually uses a wheelchair when leaving the house and needs a friend to drive her to the supermarket or doctor.
The operation would "give me my life back so that I can get walking again and going out and mixing with people without being in a wheelchair".
New Zealand Orthopaedic Association president John McKie said long waitlists for orthopaedic surgery were a national problem.
In response to the data and comments made by the three patients, Te Whatu Ora Hauora a Toi Bay of Plenty chief operating officer Bronwyn Anstis said population growth, Covid-19, a "diminished" workforce, industrial action and "high acute demand" were among factors leading to elective surgery backlogs.
From September 1 to October 31, 2019, Tauranga Hospital did 936 elective surgeries. For the same period this year, it did 593.
With the population growing "significantly" in recent years, particularly older groups, this had increased demand for planned and acute care.
"Acute and cancer surgery always takes priority and as demand in these areas has grown over time it leaves less capacity for planned operations."
This had put "significant pressure" on hospital beds, and Tauranga and Whakatāne hospitals were operating at 95 to 100 per cent of bed capacity "most of the time".
"On days when the hospital is full we, unfortunately, have to resort to cancelling planned care surgery."
Anstis said Covid meant planned care was paused during outbreak peaks.
From May 2021, RSV led to "several months of unusually high staff sickness" reducing its capacity for non-urgent care. The same had occurred with Covid.
Anstis said the international supply of healthcare professions had slowed from late 2020 to "virtually none by early 2021", leading to increased clinical staff vacancies.
It had also seen "an unusual amount of industrial action by clinical staff groups" since 2019 when all work - apart from acute and cancer - was stopped for several days.
Additionally, the key to having beds available was the "timely transfer" of care from the hospital to home or residential care.
Workforce shortages in residential and home-based care services had also added difficulty in discharging patients, resulting in undue time in hospital for some older patients.
She said the hospital had been working on this in recent years, with changes in models of care developing and planning to increase hospital capacity.
It had been expanding its integrated operations centre teams, which managed day-to-day capacity and patient flow to ensure it used all capacity and resources "as well as we possibly can".
This meant Tauranga Hospital was "one of the most productive in the country for its size" and it ran services in both Tauranga and Whakatāne hospitals to optimally use all capacity.
It had increasingly used the private sector in the past few years for planned care surgery and endoscopy.
"We are doing all we can to expand capacity, in order to increase the number of patients being seen and the speed at which they are seen. We are working hard to improve the situation."
Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller said the Government would "run to the excuse bag" and cite Covid-19 for the long waitlists.
"The problem is the excuse bag doesn't cut it for the hundreds of Bay of Plenty people who are languishing on waiting lists that have exploded under their watch."
Muller also referred to a December letter, published last week, which described senior doctors' "significant concern" about the state of resources for the "effective delivery of planned care" at the then-DHB.
Muller said this letter combined with the waitlist data showed the city's healthcare was in "crisis".
"These aren't numbers - these are people with serious pain who deserve to be cared for and to have an opportunity to live a more healthy life and they're being denied it because this city's health care is in crisis.
"The anger in our community is palpable."
Muller's comments were put to Health Minister Andrew Little for a response.
During her visit to Tauranga this week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Covid had an impact on planned care, "but even before that, there were issues in our system that we needed to overcome".
"No one wants New Zealanders to be waiting for surgery that's going to make such a critical difference to people's ability to live their lives and to live their lives pain-free."
Ardern said setting up the national health system - Te Whatu Ora - would make a difference in the long term.
"Having a national health system for the first time that's able to make sure that no matter where you live, whether you're in Tauranga or whether you're in Auckland, that you get a consistent approach in planned care."
Ardern said it would also enable moving resources around to ensure people could consistently access care.
"We immediately recognise though ... that we need a very fast focus on planned care and those, particularly who've been waiting more than 12 months.
"We've been prioritised to giving them a schedule for when they can expect the next steps in their planned care."
She acknowledged there was "still more to do".
On October 25, health officials revealed their plan to improve the inequality of wait times for planned surgeries, following the release of a "comprehensive" report which recommended 101 changes to health services.